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"We want research to be free, but it comes with a responsibility"

Published Oct 24, 2022

The changing publishing landscape requires new approaches from universities. Otherwise, research quality can fall and trust in science can be compromised.

Mats Magnusson

Mats Magnusson.

Librarian Anders Wändahl interviewed Mats Magnusson , a professor at the ITM school, to take a closer look at how open access  affects the research community. Mats has long been interested in how the publishing pattern continuously changes, and what new problems and opportunities arise alongside these changes.

It's Open Access Week  right now, so my first question is – not surprisingly – what is your view on open access (OA)? Is it important? Has OA changed your publishing?

– Yes, open access has become a non-issue for us in recent years. Publishing OA is very flexible, the journals that have agreements with KTH Library already offer OA when we submit, and the publication fees are paid by the library. OA is very important in my opinion. The ultimate reason for publishing open access is, of course, that research financed with tax money should benefit the taxpayers. But it is also a question of equity and democracy. All researchers – even those in the Global South who have less resources – should be able to access research being conducted. As researchers, we exist to improve society, and a broad dissemination of knowledge is a prerequisite for this. And one of the great things about today's technology is that this has become possible. Open access is also included in the contracts we have with several different parties. Research funders have been demanding OA publication for several years now. And then of course we also have KTH's policy to live up to, and it is clear that open publication is something to strive for. So certainly, there has been a big change toward openness in our publishing.

Open access week graphics

Open for Climate Justice

Open Access Week is held in October each year (24-30 October 2022) and provides an opportunity for academics and the research community to learn more about the potential benefits of open access, share what they have learned with colleagues and inspire a wider participation to make open access the new norm in research.

This year's theme is Open for Climate Justice

If you read KTH's publication policy, you will also find a call to publish in "leading international journals". One can sense a desire that KTH also wants the publication to help achieve a better position on different ranking lists? Surely that is also something that you must have in the back of your mind?

– Of course! The OA part is important, and we have already seen the effects there. But we have also investigated how ITM can contribute to improving KTH's ranking . Our impact manager Hatef Madani has looked at how we publish today and showed how we could change the publication to contribute to a better ranking. He has done a very good job going around between the different research groups and studying the publication patterns in detail. One can of course discuss how much we should focus on ranking, but in any case, we ask ourselves the question of whether any other alternative journal could have been better to submit to. And then we learn from this analysis for the future. We have therefore tried to concretize the overall KTH policy at our local level.

Now we have talked about external influences on the publication, policies, demands and wishes from others. What happens when you get to publish where you want?

– We publish a lot "on our home turf", and by that, I mean in journals where there is a lively discussion and a forum for our research in particular. There are naturally certain journals that appear repeatedly, and there is a good reason for that. We know them well. Our colleagues around the world also publish in these journals. These are publications in "the comfort zone" as Hatef says. But sometimes, for example, when we start new collaborations with a slightly different focus, it can be rewarding to "shop around" a bit, find new journals with new input, meet new editors, and take part in a new peer-review process.

Can you see any disadvantages and perhaps threats associated with OA publishing?

– Yes, it hasn’t escaped anyone's notice that OA publishing has a dark side. What has come to be known as predatory journals: journals that publish articles without rigorous peer-review and that just want to make money. There is a logic in this phenomenon occurring. The pressure on researchers to publish has increased, and there are more researchers than ever, doing more research than ever. Where will this research end up? The publication requirement may result in the quality of the research decreasing. And suddenly there is a market for lower quality research or at least lower quality research outputs. This is extremely dangerous. Our legitimacy is based on seeking truth and new knowledge in a systematic and structured way. If shortcuts are created in the system, we open up for a view where the research might not always be true and that the results can be questioned.

Can you elaborate on the lack of thorough peer-review?

– There is a bottleneck when it comes to the availability of peer reviewers. It has become a limited resource. Researchers do more than we did before. Peer-review is unpaid work and we don’t always have time to do it. We are expected to become more efficient, but some things cannot be made more efficient without the quality decreasing.

I want to ask a specific question about a specific publisher that has grown a lot in terms of KTH publications in the last two or three years. The publisher is, of course, MDPI , and last spring two debate articles were published in SvD where, on the one hand, a group of researchers were concerned about MDPI's growth and (lack of) quality ( ”Avtal med ökänt förlag slår mot forskningen” ). On the other hand, a response from representatives from the research funder Forte argued that it is the researcher's own responsibility and right to publish wherever they want and that the research should not be assessed according to the choice of journal. Do you have any comments on that debate and maybe even on MDPI?

Cover for Sustainability

The journal Sustainability from the publisher MDPI has been called into question.

– I completely agree with the authors who criticized MDPI. The debate came at the same time that Uppsala University said that they did not want to support publication at MDPI and that in Norway (on the so-called “Norwegian list”) the journal Sustainability was “level-X" classified. MDPI is however legitimized, due to the agreement offered by the Bibsam consortium. It was bad timing to enter into that kind of agreement and it sent the wrong signals. The response was also contradictory. The direction towards OA has been initiated by research funders, and the idea was probably not that it should be OK to publish anywhere, and that we no longer have any quality requirements. If researchers can publish wherever they want, everyone has to have an insight into how certain journals at MDPI and other similar publishers work, with guest editors, special issues, high volumes, high acceptance rates, and short lead times. Above all, this is a challenge for our younger colleagues, but I also think that many older researchers have no idea how predatory publishers work. We cannot assume that all scientists have that insight. The publishers we're talking about work in the shadows. They don't want us to keep track of how much they publish, how incredibly fast peer-review is performed, and what percentage of the manuscripts are accepted in the end. Or they ask researchers if they want to be guest editors for a special issue in a field that they have no expertise in at all. This lack of insight can mean that many researchers make the mistake of publishing in one of these dubious journals, and end up with an article that they only realize later in life that they didn't want on their CV.

A quick question because you mentioned Uppsala University's decision to no longer pay publication fees for articles from MDPI. Do you think that KTH should follow Uppsala's example?

– Yes, I would appreciate it if we stood up for academic values and high-quality research and also took responsibility for how we use taxpayer money – should it really to go to a dubious business with formal headquarters in Switzerland, but roots in China? There are perfectly good alternative journals, even if these are not as fast or as easy to be accepted in. But of course, it would create a debate at KTH, since we have a high publication rate at MDPI and especially in the journal Sustainability. And it could be perceived as discrediting a certain type of research and certain research groups.

– At the same time, it is a discussion we must have. If you have published a lot in Sustainability, you should have a good idea of how that journal works. After all, we can’t legitimize the idea that we can publish anywhere even when we see tangible quality problems. And ultimately this is a KTH problem that should be taken seriously at the highest level. To begin with, someone should analyze the quality of the articles. For example, I have found flaws in statistical analyses that indicate a failure in the peer-review process in some cases.

Can you say something general about the quality of journals published by MDPI? And possibly something about the journal Sustainability, which is also named in the critical debate entry in SvD?

– No, it is difficult to generalize. The problem with MDPI is that it's a mixed bag. This is naturally also the case with other publishers: some journals have better editorial management, while others may not be as good. And this can also vary over time. Journals can have a bad period, for example self-citations [citations to articles in the own journal] might increase to an alarming level. This happened to the journal Journal of Cleaner Production (Elsevier) a few years ago. Another example in our field was Technovation (Elsevier) about ten years ago. A suspiciously high degree of self-citations can result in a journal being temporarily "suspended" from the major citation databases (Web of Science and Scopus) until the journal has dealt with the problem. In recent years, Sustainability has stood out with a very high number of publications per year. They have gone from just over 100 published articles in 2011 to over 14,000 in the last year. We can really talk about an exponential expansion here. Subject-wise, that journal is an alternative for publication within our research area as well. If doubts about Sustainability spread, and if publication in that journal is considered not so good, even research groups that publish there may stand out as being not so good in the eyes of many, even if the research they conduct and the articles they publish are of good quality. The tragedy lies precisely in the fact that very good articles can be published in poorer quality journals, that the level of awareness about these journals is low, and that we may find ourselves on a slippery slope. We could also end up in a discussion where some researchers are "blacklisted" because of their choice of publication. An internal debate at KTH is needed here, and it is also a tangible quality problem where KTH's management should act. It may be easy to get published in Sustainability, but the path of least resistance cannot apply to tax-funded activities.

If you believe that, for example, the journal Sustainability and its ilk can create quality problems for KTH, and you have discussed this in your research collegium and have a consensus, could the ITM school not make a formal decision that discourages certain types of publication?

– No, I think leaving it up to the schools and departments is problematic. This opens up for having different ethical approaches in different parts of KTH, sometimes as a result of not having sufficient detailed knowledge of how certain journals de facto operate. It would be much better if KTH's management did this. It’s an interesting and complex question... We want research to be free, but it comes with a responsibility. I can only encourage a lively discussion about this at KTH. That might be a question for the faculty and the dean. In extreme cases, a dubious or downright bad publication can be seen – to be frank – as a theft of tax funds. And of course, it is also bad for KTH. It is about quality, both in research and publishing at KTH, and overarching issues like these are best handled at a high level. I find it troubling that we are not acting at all now, but I think that the level of awareness of the problem is unfortunately too low.

So what kind of discussions are you having in your research group or at your department about publication and quality?

– Within the various research areas there are, naturally, certain journals that are central and that are discussed regularly, and sometimes there are few alternatives. Publication is of course discussed in individual research groups as well as in our research faculty, but it can be very complicated and situation-dependent. Not all research can be published everywhere. It is important to analyze the journals in detail and try to get as much impact as possible with the manuscript you have. If we only aimed at the top journals, it could mean less applied research. We naturally want to publish in as many good journals as possible, but we should remember that many of the top-ranked universities where you only publish in the most reputable journals tend to have many post-docs and, relatively speaking, fewer doctoral students than KTH have. Having extremely high ambitions for our doctoral students' publications would, I believe, have a lot of negative consequences.

Yes, if we are talking about the doctoral students, and postgraduate education more specifically, what is the situation there?

– We have a supervisors’ committee where we naturally discuss publication within postgraduate education. For industrial doctoral students, who may be conducting more applied research, highly ranked journals can be difficult to use, and requiring these publications could jeopardize important industry collaborations. The time it takes between submission and the published article is also an important aspect for doctoral students in general, and we put pressure on them to finish on time. Ideally, the accompanying papers for doctoral theses must be published or in any case accepted before the defense. Using fast journals that are not so demanding can be tempting and sometimes necessary, but then it is also important to maintain distance from questionable publishers. The peer-review process is also very important feedback for doctoral students, and the review is generally better and more constructive in better journals. When it comes to choosing a journal for doctoral students' publication, the supervisor helps a lot in the beginning and we emphasize that it is important to make an informed choice. We also must accept that doctoral education is an education and that we can’t expect doctoral students to be full-fledged researchers from day one. Therefore, there might be reasons to also consider lower-ranked journals when the doctoral student writes autonomously and not together with their supervisor.

The KTH Library strives to provide good and relevant support to KTH. What do you think would be the best support the library can provide when it comes to publishing for KTH's researchers?

– Help develop publication strategies (including journal selection, and avoidance of predatory journals) and follow-up on how we perform at the individual, research group, and institutional levels.

– Knowledgeable and flexible support, which we get already, in my point of view.

We are coming to the end of our conversation about the broad topic of scholarly publishing and open access. Do you have any closing comments that we may not have touched on but that you would like to bring up?

– A general comment is that the entire publishing system is unreasonable right now. Some publishers make enormous amounts of money from scientific publishing, and we are the ones who do all the work with research, article writing, peer-review, etc. Why should we pay them when technology has fundamentally changed, from print to electronic? In the long term, we should move towards even more democratized forms of publishing, where academia takes over more of the management of publication and pays less to publishers and other actors.

Many thanks for your insightful views, Mats. I hope that what you have said in our conversation can serve as an introduction to a lively discussion about publication and quality at KTH. We’ll continue monitoring the situation at the library and look forward to continuing the discussion!

Read more about open access publishing at KTH