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The rise of the mega-journal

What are mega-journals?

First appearing in 2006, a small number of so-called mega-journals are rapidly moving into the mainstream of scholarly communication, and have the potential to fundamentally change the ways in which new research is disseminated. Mega-journals such as PLOS ONESAGE Open, and PeerJ, to name but a few, are open access journals in which the articles published have been rigorously peer-reviewed.

So far, so what – these features are nothing new, nor is the usual business model of requiring article processing charges before publication. What is different from more traditional journals is their breadth of coverage and approach to quality.

What makes them different?

Mega-journals have an unprecedentedly wide scope. PLOS ONE, for example, publishes articles across the entire fields of science and medicine, SpringerPlus covers all disciplines of science and SAGE Open, the full spectrum of the social and behavioural sciences and the humanities. This means that articles are not selected based on a narrow set of subject criteria, nor on an assessment of their ‘importance’ or ‘interest’ to a particular notional readership. Mega-journals publish all papers as long as they reach a particular quality threshold, normally defined in terms of ‘technical soundness’, with editorial policies stating explicitly that issues such as ‘importance’ are better assessedfollowing publication. Indicators such as citations and downloads are commonly used to provide article-specific indicators of quality, and may be augmented by the promotion of post-publication online commentary and debate on articles, providing informal indicators of community ‘interest’

Why are they important?

Firstly, they are big, and have no theoretical limits on their potential size. The first mega-journal was PLOS ONE, founded in 2006, and it has gone on to become the largest single academic journal in the world, publishing 13,798 articles in 2011, 23,468 in 2012, and 31,500 in 2013. It has been estimated that in 2012 PLOS ONE output constituted about 3% of the science, technology and medicine  articles published that year.

Secondly, they completely reverse the trend in scholarly publishing which has led, over the last 40 years, to increasing specialism, with journals concentrating on ever-narrower fields of interest. Mega-journals give publishers the potential for significant economies of scale. Instead of having to manage large portfolios of journal titles, all with differing criteria for inclusion, publishers can create streamlined processes and integrated systems for a single journal. They also create the potential for major system-wide savings, since the inherently duplicative submission-rejection cycle undergone by many papers before acceptance is significantly reduced. The benefits of such an approach are beginning to be reflected in the policies of some non-mega-journal publishers, who display ‘mega-journal-like’ behaviours in their practice of cascading papers rejected by one of their titles to another for consideration.

Thirdly, mega-journals are affecting the nature of scholarship itself. Academic scholars build their reputations on their record of publication, with authors competing to be published, and editors, editorial boards and reviewers acting as the gatekeepers of the discipline. In this model, assessments of ‘importance’ and ‘novelty’, as well as ‘scope’, play an important role, and inter-disciplinary research, however good, can be at a disadvantage. Mega-journals, with their emphasis on quality-control based only on ‘technical soundness’, actively encourage interdisciplinary research, by removing these subject-based criteria from consideration, and allowing the readership to decide on ‘importance’. This has major implications for the established power dynamics within disciplinary communities.

Finally, as well as crossing boundaries between disciplinary communities, there is the potential for mega-journals to promote links between the academic community as a whole and other sectors, providing greater impact for the research. With their broad subject range, and findability via general internet search engines, those outside academia such as policymakers, health officials, educators, journalists, and the curious reader can have easy access to academic research all in one place.  PLOS ONE, for example, intentionally promotes such engagement with its ‘lay’ blog, EveryONE.

The future?

While the number of high quality articles being published continues to grow, there may be room for smaller, specialist, titles to co-exist alongside mega-journals, but in the longer term, as mega-journals grab more market share, the viability of many titles may be under threat. Publishers will, no doubt, adapt to the new environment, however, as there will always be a need for the kind of quality assurance of research outputs which comes from rigorous peer review.

This Blog post was written by Claire Creaser, Director of LISU and a member of the Centre for Information Management.