Subscription-Based Journals Have Not Been Found to Make Significant Contributions to Post-Publication Article Quality

Recent findings suggest that a transition to Open Access publishing is not likely to have a discernible effect on the quality of scholarly articles, since no significant measurable differences have been found between pre-print papers and their final versions as articles published in toll-based journals.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


In their article published by International Journal on Digital Libraries on February 5, 2018, and available in draft version at arXiv, a pre-print archive, from April 18, 2016, Martin Klein, Peter Broadwell, Sharon E. Farb, and Todd Grappone have cast considerable, though tentative, doubt on the claims of large journal publishers, such as Elsevier and Wiley, that their subscription and publication fees follow from their internal cost structures that both contribute to and ensure the quality of the papers that paywall-protected journals publish. More specifically, by applying comparative content analysis methods based on article-level editorial changes, length similarity, sentence similarity and semantic similarity to papers that have appeared in both arXiv and traditional scientific journals, the conclusions of Klein et al. (2018) suggest that a strong case in favor of transitioning to Open Access exists.

Since in their vast majority pre-print articles have not been found to be distinguishable from their final published versions, by switching to Open Access, research and academic institutions can both realize considerable savings, such as by terminating their journal subscriptions for titles in scientific areas in which pre-print paper deposition is widely practiced, while avoiding compromising the quality of the eventual scientific output. At the same time, the findings of Klein et al. (2018) can be criticized on the grounds that they apply formal similarity measures that fail to account for the input that journal-level editorial staff members make to the eventual shape that journal submissions eventually make. Whereas to address these criticisms alternative comparative methodologies and data sets will have to be used to make an effective counter-claims, they, nevertheless, indicate that it is Open Access journals, rather than pre-print repositories, that are likely to constitute the future of scholarly publishing, since they can combine streamlined, transparent cost structures with peer-review and copy-editing procedures that are usually not provided by institutional repositories.

Moreover, despite the possibly inevitable limitations of Klein et al.’s (2018) empirical study, such as being limited to the domains of science, technology and medicine, as corresponding results for humanities and social sciences can be different, represents a validation of Open Access as an approach to scientific publishing that can and does meet quality standards when formal metrics and quantitative indicators are applied. Though results for different pre-print servers other than arXiv can be differ from this research as well, these results raise the question concerning the measurable added value that subscription-based journals bring to the articles they publish.

In newspapers and periodicals, the status quo situation in the publishing market, where few large global publishers dominate the article publishing sector, is not infrequently described as deriving from the prestige of subscription-based journals. As opposed to the qualitative, relative nature of journal prestige, the empirical operationalization of published article quality as a difference between preprints and final papers by Klein et al. (2018) presages further growth in the Open Access sector of the journal publishing market.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Boston, MA, USA, April 11, 2017 © Courtesy of Bill Ilott/Flickr.

This article has originally appeared in OpenScience, 19/03/2018, http://openscience.com/subscription-based-journals-have-not-been-found-to-make-significant-contributions-to-post-publication-article-quality/.


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