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From Psycholinguists to Patient Advocates: A Look at Open Access Journals Today

Posted on by Rebecca Ortenberg

In the summer of 2020, Fernanda Ferreira, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and an expert in psycholinguistics, had a flash of inspiration. “She says it literally came to her in a dream,” says linguist Florian Schwarz, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. An intensely interdisciplinary field, psycholinguistics lacked a scholarly journal that served both linguists and psychologists equally. Ferreira’s idea was to create one--and to make the journal open access. In March of this year, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries signed on as one of the sponsors of the resulting journal, Glossa Psycholinguistics. Other sponsors include MIT, the University of California, Davis, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Cologne. Today, the co-editors-in-chief are Ferreira and Brian Dillon of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Schwarz serves as one of the journal’s six associate editors.

The decision to make the journal open access was in large part inspired by the linguistics journal Glossa, which has been in operation since 2016. Glossa was founded by linguist Johan Rooryck, who has served as a key advisor for the new journal. The two publications are now “sister” journals that share administrative costs and editorial standards, among other things. But there is also something philosophically appropriate about the psycholinguistics community rallying around an open access journal. Psycholinguists tend to explore questions related to language comprehension and production; for example, Dillon studies how people understand which pronouns are referring to which people in the context of a particular conversation. Such questions require an understanding of both psychology and linguistics. “[Psycholinguistics] is so interdisciplinary, but a lot of institutionalized things tend to be either/or,” Schwarz explains. “You sometimes feel like you fall between the cracks because you’re not quite at home in either psychology or linguistics.” Thus, an open access journal--something that inherently lives outside those institutional boundaries--offers the perfect intellectual home.

Since the beginning, open access academic journals have served scholarly and non-scholarly communities who, for one reason or another, felt unsatisfied with traditional academic publishing. Most people point to the early 1990s as the beginning of the open access journal movement. At that time, some scientists, inspired by the potential of the internet and the open access software movement, began to boldly side-step the increasingly expensive academic publishing industry, choosing to self-archive articles using sites like By the early 2000s, a number of groups had begun to found new scientific journals devoted to open access. This led the Budapest Open Access Initiative to formally define “open access” as a publication “permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose.”

Penn nursing librarian Richard James sees a clear ethical argument for open access journals, particularly when it comes to the health sciences. As a patient advocate as well as a librarian, he has observed first-hand the positive impact that open access journals can have on scholarly and non-scholarly communities alike. ”If you’re working on research about people and using people to produce that research, they have a right to [see the results],” he observes. “Patient advocates want to be able to assist with the production of research, and then take it and communicate it to our communities, our fellow stakeholders.” In exchange, researchers improve their relationship with stakeholders, which can lead to better research down the road. They also get more readers and are cited more often by people both inside and outside academia.

There are other advantages, too. James is an associate editor of the Directory of Open Access Journals, which lists open access journals that meet specific standards and coaches new journals on best practices. In recent years, the Directory has been approached more and more often by journals based outside of Europe and the United States--particularly in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. “The resource difference between their academic communities and the European and American ones are so stark that journals can’t compete in the [traditional journal] market. Open access is more achievable and sustainable.”

Along with unique opportunities, open access poses unique challenges. Some scholars still see open access journals as less prestigious or potentially more predatory. While not a formal accreditor, the Directory works to lend credence and respectability to the journals listed in its database, all of which are required to abide by certain principles and meet certain standards. 

The primary challenge facing open access journals is also the most straightforward: cost. If universities or individual readers aren’t paying a journal a subscription fee, then how is the journal covering its operating costs? While debates rage over the necessity of the high subscription fees required by traditional, for-profit journals, publishing is expensive, and open access journals are still experimenting with different kinds of funding models that keep access free for readers.

One of the most common models that open access journals use to cover these costs is to ask authors to pay a fee. Importantly, the expectation is not that the individual scholar will pay out-of-pocket, but that the institution they work for or the agency covering a research grant will supply the funds, much the same way they cover the cost to travel to an archive or the purchase of specialized lab supplies. For this model to work, of course, both scholars and funding organizations need to build these costs into a research project from the start. James sees an important role for librarians--including those at the Penn Libraries--in educating both scholars and funders to make this happen. “What if grants offices included a checklist in their applications that asked, ‘what are you doing about funding open access?’”

Of course, this model runs the risk of creating new inequalities, allowing scholars at wealthier institutions or those with access to more grant funds a much higher opportunity to publish. Complicating things further, grant funding tends to be more available in some academic fields than in others. That’s why both Glossa and Glossa Psycholinguistics have added a twist to this funding model that they hope will help scholars who don’t have the necessary funds. While contributors are encouraged to pay the author fees the journals have set, those fees are voluntary. Those that cannot pay do not have to. “From one perspective, the fees that Glossa Psycholinguistics charges are a sort of in-kind contribution from authors who have external funding or other kinds of institutional support,” Dillon explains. Are they worried that some people might take advantage of the model? Would it work in other disciples? Schwarz notes that part of what makes their model possible is the interest in and enthusiasm for open access within the linguistics community. “There’s a culture of saying ‘yes, we will support these efforts.’ That meant that we could take that leap of faith.”

This “pay if you can” model is only possible for Glossa Psycholinguistics because of the up-front support from the Penn Libraries and other institutions. “Having that initial start-up support from all of the universities was really critical in making sure that we could adhere to fair open access principles right from the get-go,” explains Dillon. Schwarz adds that support from the Penn Libraries “really was one cornerstone in building a stable financial basis.”

Open access advocates are also experimenting with other publishing models that change the way journals are funded. In “transformative agreements” like the one the University of California system made earlier this year with journal mega-publisher Elsevier, all journal articles published by faculty in Elsevier’s journals are made open access, with the library and authors’ grant funds paying necessary publishing fees. In another model, called “subscribe to open,” a journal makes articles previously only available to subscribers open access as long as a certain number of subscribers--usually major research libraries or consortia--agree to continue to pay their subscription fees. The major benefit of this model is that no author, neither at the “subscribing” institutions or elsewhere, are required to pay any fees to have their research published open access. 

To better make sense of the current open access landscape, the University’s faculty senate convened a committee in 2019 to explore topics related to scholarly communication, including efforts Penn might take to further support open access publishing. The committee considered the many inequities participants in the scholarly publication system currently face, including those that make it difficult for authors to disseminate their research broadly or those that bar readers across the globe from accessing  scholarly work. Their preliminary report suggests developing a framework of principles for the faculty and libraries to adopt that could include ​​prioritizing non-profit, learned society, and  academy-led scholarly publishers over for-profit and commercial publishers. The committee is also interested in supporting other open access publishing models that allow equitable participation in the dissemination of scholarly research. Brigitte Weinsteiger, the Libraries Associate Vice Provost for Collections and Scholarly Communications, and a member of the faculty committee notes, “Besides achieving the benefits of widespread access to scholarly research that open access allows, we also need to address deeper issues and abuses within today’s scholarly communication landscape, issues that impact researchers, libraries, and the general public.”

Weinsteiger observes that this is still an experimental time for open access publishing, and in that spirit, the University of Pennsylvania is eager to support a broad range of models. “The Libraries are so pleased to help launch innovative initiatives like Glossa Psycholinguistics that are led by scholars and attempt to increase access to important research without creating new barriers to participation in scholarly discourse.”

James is also optimistic about what the Penn Libraries can offer the open access movement. “We can leverage the power of our collections and our presence to advocate at every level."