v32#4 ATG Interviews Lars Bjørnshauge, Managing Director and Founder of the Directory of Open Access Journals

by | Sep 30, 2020 | 0 comments

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By: Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain)  and Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain) 

Lars Bjørnshauge

ATG:  Lars, you founded the Directory of Open Access Journals in 2003 with a list of 300 titles.  What was happening at that time that made you think there was a need for such a listing?

LB:  In Autumn 2002 we hosted the Nordic Conference on Scholarly Communication.  As you may recall this was in the very early days of Open Access, just a few months after the Budapest Declaration.  During the discussions, a participant suggested that a list of Open Access journals should be created and maintained.  As the host of the conference, I volunteered that the Lund University Head Office could develop such a list.  We got an initial grant from the Open Society Foundation, and the development began a few months later.  In May 2003 we launched the DOAJ with some 300 OA-journals.  Over the following few years, we received a couple of grants from the Royal Library of Sweden to continue the work.

ATG:  And now it has grown to more than 14,500 titles today.  How do you account for such success?

LB:  The primary reason is, of course, the continuing attraction of Open Access, driven by early adopters, researchers, libraries, and later research funders and even governments.  Secondly, we have apparently been able to transition a promising project into a service that has been sensitive to the rapidly changing and increasing demand from the community.

ATG:  Your Constitution states that DOAJ is a not-for-profit organization and that you are managed by “Infrastructure Services for Open Access CIC (Community Interest Company) in the U.K.”  For our non-UK readers, what is a Community Interest Company?

LB:  I left Lund University in 2011.  By that time, DOAJ had grown in volume and importance, and it became obvious that a single university could not and should not be responsible for such a service in the long run.  In late 2012, we (two other OA-advocates, Alma Swan and Caroline Sutton, and myself) established Infrastructure Services for Open Access (IS4OA) registered in the United Kingdom.  Via an agreement with Lund University, we took over the running of the DOAJ.  On January 1st, 2013 DOAJ was relaunched under IS4OAIS4OA is a Community Interest Company (C.I.C), a type of company that declares itself as serving the community (in this case the research community).  In the statutes, it is stated, among other things, that the company cannot be sold to a private corporation, and that, in the case of termination, the assets have to be transferred to a specific organization with a similar mission.

ATG:  Over the years DOAJ has evolved into an organization with international membership.  How would you characterize the current membership?  Which parts of the scholarly communication ecosystem are more highly represented?  Publishers?  Vendors?  Librarians?  Are there specific regions of the world with more representation?

LB:  We have “supporters” who donate money to allow us to continue.  The main funding has come via yearly contributions from members of library consortia and individual academic libraries (75% of the income).  Research funders contribute 5%, and publishers and aggregators contribute with sponsorships (20% of the income).

Consortia and libraries from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Western Europe are the main contributors, but we have contributions from 34 countries including some from Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

ATG:  We noticed that on your website it says that DOAJ is a community-curated online directory.  What does that mean exactly?  How does community curation work?  How is peer review assured in a community curated environment?

LB:  The DOAJ Editorial workforce is now 13 paid staff based in various European countries, Singapore, Algeria, and Peru.  In addition to that we have 90 volunteers (PhD- students, retired professors, librarians etc.) based in 30+ countries, mastering 40+ languages, and each devoting several hours per week.  Volunteers apply to work for us and are selected based on their skills and references.  We also have 20 Ambassadors working in territories around the world.  This is what we mean by community-curated.

The work of the paid editorial staff and volunteers are guided by an extensive set of evaluation criteria and the evaluation is done in turn by an assistant editor, editor, and managing editor.

ATG:  Much of the work of DOAJ is carried out by volunteers.  Can you give us examples of what duties they perform?  How is the volunteer program organized and managed?  What sorts of people do you recruit for the position of volunteer for DOAJ?  If one is interested, how does one become a volunteer?

LB:  The volunteers are organized in language groups (i.e., Spanish 1, English 2, Portuguese 1, etc.).  These groups consist of one editor and a handful of associate editors, who work with the journal applications (we are now receiving more than 8,000 per year).  Following our editorial guidelines, the editor suggests the decision (acceptance/rejection) to a managing editor from the core team.  We recruit new volunteers, now and then, based on open calls.

ATG:  Can you tell us more about the process and governance at DOAJ?  How are members of your Advisory Board and DOAJ Council selected?  Who oversees the process and makes final decisions?  Do you accept nominations?  What role does the Advisory Board play?  What does the DOAJ Council do?

LB:  Our governance model was launched late last year, so it is still early days.  Organizations contributing at least € 1,500/year are entitled to nominate individuals for a place on the Advisory Board and the Council.  Selection from among those nominated is done by a vote of the supporting organizations.  We also have two seats on the Council that are filled by invitation only.  These seats are reserved for organizations whose ethics, goals and mission are similar to our own.

ATG:  Lars, we still wonder about the second part of our question.  What are the intended roles of the Advisory Board and the DOAJ Council?  How do they differ?

LB:  The Advisory Board is the highest body in the Governance Structure, consisting of 9 members including the chair.  The Council is a broader group, 15 seats.  The Advisory Board will provide advice to the DOAJ management about among other things Strategic Development, Technical Development, Budget, Financing and Fundraising, HR and staffing, Marketing and PR, Scholarly Communication Issues, etc.  Essentially the Council engage with the same issues and provide input to the Advisory Board. 

ATG:  Innovation is key for any organization to maintain its viability.  What sources have provided DOAJ with your most productive ideas for innovation.  Have any of those ideas come from outside the organization?  Can you cite some examples?

LB:  The most important driver for changes for DOAJ has been the developments in the community, mainly the increasing call for open access by universities, research funders and governments and their increasing demands of information about the journals.  Starting out with a very basic set of criteria to be listed we have now more than 50 questions for the journal to address in an application.  Much of this comes from the demand from funders and universities wanting to be sure that a journal adheres to good publishing and transparency standards.  So, the basic driver for change has been the changes in the environment.  Examples could be funders who request the CC-BY license;  therefore, we have included very specific questions about licensing, another example could universities who would like to know whether a journal have a deposit policy registered in one of the registries.

ATG:  We suspect that there have been occasional debates/disagreements over whether an applicant should be in DOAJ or not.  Without naming names, can you let us in on the nature of some past controversies?

LB:  DOAJ lists only fully Open Access journals.  Hybrid journals and proceedings are out of scope.  But we are rejecting thousands of journal applications each year; in fact, our acceptance rate is around 45%.  When we reject a journal application the applicant is informed of the reasons for rejection, and the journal is told that it can apply again after six months.  Few journals/publishers complain about our decision.  We have an appeals procedure in place, where our team discusses each case again.  Often controversies are about rights issues and licenses.  We have managed to get even the largest publishers to clean up their act and make clear to users their rights and license information.

ATG:  It must be fairly expensive to maintain the DOAJ database and provide your other services.  What are the sources of your funding?  Do you charge a fee to be listed?

LB:  It is expensive and from our experience, people don’t always understand or appreciate what the true cost is to keep an infrastructure like DOAJ operational.  All our services and data are provided free of charge, as is the journal application process.  This means that we have no guaranteed income stream other than donations.  Universities, academic libraries, and consortia pay an annual contribution.  Universities and academic libraries pay € 585/year.  Discount models are available for consortia.  Medium-sized, large publishers and aggregators are encouraged to pay yearly sponsorships (£3,000 – £12,000).  Smaller publishers can donate smaller amounts.  A number of research funders are contributing on a case by case basis.  Turnover for 2019 was around £700,000.  In 2018, SCOSS (www.scoss.org) launched a program for a coalition of almost a dozen international associations to encourage their members to support crucial infrastructure services for open access with three-year commitments for sustainability.

DOAJ was one of two pilot services, and the SCOSS program generated a lot of support (https://blog.doaj.org/2018/08/16/global-sustainability-coalition-for-open-science-scoss-hits-half-million-euro-funding-mark/) from current and new supporters, among them many from the U.S. and Canada.

Since our operations are continuously growing and evolving, we are currently discussing additional funding models.

ATG:  How do you see DOAJ establishing solid financial backing from key stakeholders while still retaining a governance model that is focused on the community of libraries, universities, and research institutions?

LB:  So far, the model has worked quite well.  Our income from public institutions accounts for 80% and from publishers/aggregators 20%.  We haven´t seen signs of concerns from commercial publishers that public institutions dominate our governance bodies.  We assume that all stakeholder groups appreciate the work we do and that there are strong benefits for all parties.  In general, 95% of the supporters are renewing their commitments year on year which is a high loyalty rate.

As part of the ongoing discussions around financing the DOAJ, we are debating whether there are secondary services, such as metadata analysis or metrics, that we can offer stakeholders for a fee.  It’s a possible business model but we need to do some market analysis to see whether it is something that organizations want from us.

ATG:  As you look back on the growth and development of the DOAJ, what surprises you the most?  What would you say are DOAJ’s key contributions to the open access movement?  And to scholarly communications more broadly?

LB:  I guess what surprises me the most is that DOAJ has been able to achieve the position as the authoritative listing of good open access journals, so far unchallenged — in a period of time, where open access has increased in importance for the academic community.  We are fortunate that we managed to turn an interesting project into an important service, central to the community, without having to rely on big grants.  We have done this on a crowdfunding model which has grown organically over the years.  We are proud as well that we have managed to keep the global and inclusive focus, listing journals from more than 130 countries.  Our impartiality is one of our key strengths along with the fact that our service is free to everyone.  We have contributed significantly to the advancement of open access and the visibility of open access journals.  We have been able to raise the profile of open access journals, while fighting the myths around open access.  Through the work we have done indexing journals and through the advice and help we have provided to publishers all over the world, we have done a lot to increase the quality of open access publishing.

ATG:  You have also been involved in other organizations prominent in the OA Movement.  In what ways does DOAJ support and interact with such organizations?  Which other organizations do you consider key open access allies?

LB:  Right.  I am co-founder of OpenDOAR (https://v2.sherpa.ac.uk/opendoar/), DOAB (https://www.doabooks.org/), and Think. Check. Submit.  (https://thinkchecksubmit.org/) — but I am no longer involved.  I guess that I have been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and have been able to push my agenda: not projects, but services!!

DOAJ has several partnerships with organizations working on related issues, like ISSN, COPE, OASPA, Think. Check. Submit., the Library Publishing Coalition, Redalyc and SciELO.  Since we launched DOAJ, the open agenda has evolved dramatically with Open Data, Open Science, Open Scholarship etc.  We are all working towards the same goal, but DOAJ’s focus is the fully Open Access journals.

ATG:  In another interview, you said that the biggest challenge to open access was “the inertia in academia and research” around the movement.  What did you mean by that?  You also said in that interview that “hybrid open access was a major challenge for open access publishing.”  Can you elaborate?

LB:  The point I am trying to make regarding inertia in the academy is that in the North and the West, research is funded upfront via research grants, while the dissemination of the research results has been handled initially by learned societies but, over several decades, increasingly by commercial publishers.  In other parts of the world, for instance Latin America, research and the dissemination of research have been funded upfront, taken care of by universities.  In the North and the West, the academy has outsourced the dissemination, without specifying demands, to the services of the publishers.  This is the primary reason we are in the mess we are in, with pricing issues, rights issues, lack of transparency etc.  It is an extremely bad way of outsourcing!  The academy has lost control over the intellectual output of their researchers.  It could, however, take back that control; the academy could and should take the driver’s seat and organize the dissemination themselves via collaborative non-commercial publishing ventures or, at the very least, when the academy outsources to commercial publishers they should do real procurement and service level agreements.  Instead, as we all know, the inertia is there, the reluctance to move away from the abusive use of the Journal Impact Factor and other misleading metrics, the addiction to prestige (which has very little to do with quality — just look at the recent retractions of COVID papers) and university rankings.  In short, competition between research institutions still has priority over transparent, cost-efficient dissemination of research.

Regarding hybrid open access:  Hybrid open access was invented by publishers to accommodate the increasing number of open access policies and mandates in universities, research funders and governments, and to allow researchers to publish in their preferred journals.  Under a slogan of protecting academic freedom, publishers could offer researchers the ability to continue submitting to their preferred journals or prestige journals.  It is a well-known fact that the fees charged by hybrid journals are on average twice as expensive as the APCs charged by fully open access journals.  But, it is a less well-known fact that hybrid articles do not participate in the functionality of link resolvers because the OpenURL framework was architected only at a journal level.  A reader in a university seeing a citation to a hybrid article will only see the link to the full- text if the university subscribes to the containing journal.  Otherwise it will look to the user like they have no access to that article.  Hybrid “open” is very much a false promise, but has nevertheless allowed commercial publishers to continue to distort the publishing business.  Now, the recent variants of “transformative agreements” only makes the grip of narrow commercial interests even stronger, with the consent of the academy (universities, libraries and research funders).  These developments have the bizarre consequence that the fully open access publishers, who are doing exactly what universities and research funders want to see happen — (open from day one with liberal use, reuse and remix rights) are being disadvantaged and sometimes even excluded from the competition.

ATG:  DOAJ is now a well-established part of the scholarly communication infrastructure for Open Access journals that libraries can count on for legitimate, peer-reviewed content.  Where do you see DOAJ developing its capabilities and services in the future?

LB:  While DOAJ has developed significantly during the years, our work is not nearly done.  Even though we are the most inclusive listing of verified, peer-reviewed OA-journals in terms of global and language coverage, there is still a lot to do.  DOAJ has always received a steady stream of applications, now running at a pace exceeding 8,000 per year.  However, there are open access journals out there which we would like to see in DOAJ and that we will therefore approach.  Over the next two years, we will incorporate new features and technologies into the platform to help smaller, non-English language publishers to be more visible, especially within arts, humanities, and social sciences.  For example, we are researching right now what it would take for DOAJ to become a DOI registration agent.  We will continue working with editors on a global scale to improve the quality of the services their journals provide and to give them more impact and visibility.  Our strategy for 2021-2022 includes working with search engines, discovery services and recommendation systems to ensure that the metadata we provide is more useful and therefore more visible in their services, thus securing DOAJ’s place in the discovery chain and improving the visibility of the journals in as many places as possible.  By securing our place in the discovery chain we want to make the DOAJ name synonymous with legitimate, peer-reviewed, open access content, thereby increasing our usefulness to researchers, libraries, and funders.

ATG:  And more broadly, what future impacts do you see DOAJ having on the overall OA movement as it progresses?  How do you see the OA movement itself evolving?

LB:  This is a difficult one!  There are a lot of things happening in scholarly publishing, and innovation is often driven by people from the “open” movement.  DOAJ will have to adopt new technologies and features to be able to continue to increase the visibility of open access journals and their content.  We will rise to meet those demands to ensure the continued support of DOAJ from our stakeholders.  If we meet their needs, they will continue to support us.  So far, I see no signs that the community will not continue to support DOAJ.  On the contrary, there is an increasing focus on the need for community-driven infrastructures.  Open will be the default, but it will have many faces.  I see a bright future for preprints, and for things like open peer-review.  Eventually the research funders and academic institutions will step up and reward or even require open.  We have been fighting and advocating for a couple of decades now.  I am confident that we shall not wait two more decades before we can conclude that open access, open data, open software, open peer-review is the norm, is the mainstream.

ATG:  Lars, you have presented at both the Fiesole Retreats and the Charleston Conference.  Can you tell us about those experiences?

LB:  While it was quite some time ago, I recall that I was quite pleased with the diverse group of participants and the openness of the discussions.  It is quite impressive that the conference and retreats have continued for so many years.  Many times, I have had plans to participate, but other commitments have come in the way.

ATG:  When not dealing with DOAJ and open access related issues, what do you do in your down time?  Are there particular activities or hobbies that you enjoy?

LB:  Having a family.  My wife, four children and five grandchildren give me a lot of joy!  My passion is growing succulents and cacti from seed in my vegetable garden at my summerhouse.  I like to listen to music from the 60s and onwards (having been active in bands in my teenage years).

ATG:  Thank you so much for taking time from what we know is a very busy schedule to talk to us.  We very much enjoyed it and learned a lot.

LB:  It has been a pleasure!  

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