The other day I received an email from a librarian colleague who is also a scholar in New Testament. He considers himself an “under-employed Ph.D.,” by which I gather means having the academic credentials but not a full teaching position. I don’t know the circumstances of his situation, but I do know he is not alone. Professorships in Biblical Studies are notoriously difficult to come by.
His email was interesting on a number of levels. He was asking, as someone who is trying to establish himself “as a competent scholar,” why he should consider open access instead of trying to get his articles accepted in “well-known and prestigious journal[s].” He was also curious about copyright issues with open access.
These are important questions that I want to follow-up with in a subsequent post. In this post, however, I want to write about the specific situation that prompted his questions. A couple of weeks ago he received an unsolicited invitation from SAGE Publications to be a reviewer for their new open access journal, SAGE Open. He had never heard of SAGE Open. He wanted to know what this was all about.
What is SAGE Open?
The model for SAGE Open appears to be PLoS ONE, a multidisciplinary open access science “mega journal” (particularly for the life-sciences and medicine) published by Public Library of Science, the now renowned non-profit open access science journal publisher.
SAGE has had a program in place for some time which enables authors to pay a fee to make their articles open access, particularly to comply with mandated archiving policies by funding agencies. But this is SAGE’s first foray into open access journal publishing. SAGE Open (started in 2011) is seeking to do and be for the humanities and social/behavioral sciences what PLoS ONE is and does for the sciences.
The “mega journal” approach differs from “traditional” discipline-specific journals (even in electronic format) in a number of significant ways. First, as already noted, it is intentionally and broadly multidisciplinary (browse SAGE Open’s subject coverage here, which to my initial surprise includes Religion and Religious Studies). SAGE, again following PLoS, is promoting this as a strength of the journal: “[B]y not restricting papers to a narrow discipline, SAGE Open facilitates the discovery of the connections between papers, whether within or between disciplines” (from the SAGE Open “About the journal” page).
Second, unlike what most scholars are used to, the SAGE Open mega journal is not organized as a limited collection of articles (typically with other editorial or review content) gathered into issues and then released at some specified (periodic) time interval (quarterly, bi-annually, etc). In SAGE Open, research articles are published continuously as they are submitted, peer-reviewed, and accepted for publication. The journal leverages the inherent strengths of online dissemination on their web platform (the journal is online only), which is not hampered by the practical limitations of space or distribution imposed by the print journal archetype. SAGE Open has an ISSN (2158-2440), but the published article is really the major currency of the title. Because articles are published continuously, this speeds up the overall publication process. The timeframe from submission to acceptance to publication can now be measured in weeks instead of months (or even years).
Finally, SAGE differs from PLoS in being a for-profit commercial publisher, but is similar to PLoS (and Springer, another major for-profit open access publisher) in covering the costs of making SAGE Open open access by charging article processing fees in lieu of subscription or pay-for-view fees to would-be readers. PLoS ONE currently charges a $1,350 fee for each article accepted for publication. SAGE Open charges $695 per article, but currently has a “special introductory rate of $395.” The article fee pays for peer-review, copyediting and typesetting, archiving, “global distribution” on SAGE’s online journal platform, and branding/marketing by “a world-leading social science publisher.” Authors retain their copyrights under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC-BY 3.0).
A few Religious Studies articles showing up in SAGE Open
I had visited the SAGE Open site for a cursory glance a while back. But after my colleague’s inquiry I was prompted to take a closer look. I know that SAGE publishes a number of journals in Theology and Biblical Studies. But why would a New Testament Biblical Studies scholar be invited to review for a broad multidisciplinary humanities and social science journal? When I browsed the subjects I was surprised to discover an entry for Religious Studies, and a link to three articles. Not a lot. But it’s a start.
Editorial structure, peer-review and journal development
I contacted the Biblical Studies and Theology Publisher at SAGE to inquire about the relationship between SAGE’s traditional journal offerings and Religious Studies coverage in SAGE Open. She is not currently directly involved in this open access effort. However, she was kind enough to explain how SAGE Open intends to function editorially to include subject coverage in Religion.
The SAGE Open managing editor (working with a team out of SAGE’s office in the United States) recruits an external academic editor for every article submitted, in consultation with subject editors within SAGE. The article editor will be a reputable academic, working in a field related to the subject of the article. The article editor is then responsible for the peer review process, and will recruit two academic reviewers for each article. This ensures that the decision-making process for articles is independent of SAGE and conducted by academic experts. There is an academic board in place, whose capacity is advisory. Their names are listed here. The pool of article editors and peer reviewers is much wider, representing a diversity of subject areas. That pool is growing all the time, in parallel with submissions. The aim is to provide a forum for sound research, and naturally we hope that the individual subject categories within SAGE Open will grow and become a place that people interested in specific disciplines will recognize for quality.
The peer review process is designed to evaluate the scientific and research methods of each article for validity; the article editor accepts articles solely on the basis of the research and not on the basis of thematic significance. In other words, if the scholarship behind the research is sound, the article is accepted. This approach allows readers greater access and gives them the power to determine the significance of each article through SAGE Open’s interactive comments feature and article-level usage metrics.
I asked her if SAGE has plans to develop any dedicated open access journals in Biblical Studies, Theology or Religion. Her response was understandably vague and noncommittal.
In terms of future direction, I’m not in a position to define SAGE’s strategy here, other than to say that we see SAGE Open as an important part of our portfolio, alongside our other journals, books and digital products. SAGE monitors market developments closely and, like any successful business, we aim to move with the times and adapt our approaches accordingly. We remain open to exploring different models and channels of publication, where such developments are strategically sustainable and contribute to the quality and depth of our portfolio. If you have thoughts on possible future ventures for SAGE then I would love to hear about them!
Her reply suggests that SAGE Open is serving as SAGE’s demonstration that it is on-board with open access. Her response also answered my question about my colleague’s invitation. Subject editors and reviewers, once secured, are paired with authors as their articles are submitted. So, if my colleague accepts the invitation, he will be placed in a large multidisciplinary pool of academic experts on-call to review articles matching their subject expertise. Again, different from traditional discipline-based journals that intentionally seek articles from within a relatively narrow scope, with SAGE Open, the articles that are submitted and are subsequently accepted for publication drive subject area development from within the journal’s broad scope.
Because of this, there is really no reason why a scholar in New Testament couldn’t submit an article for inclusion in SAGE Open. When this happens, a subject editor would be chosen to shepherd this article through the submission process. My colleague might be called upon to review this article based on his subject expertise. Then, if the article is accepted for publication, the subject coverage within SAGE Open simply expands (or the granularity is refined) to accommodate. Fascinating.
This model has been very successful for PLoS in the life sciences (where I understand hundreds of articles are submitted each week). I can see SAGE making a go of this for the social/behavioral sciences. It is harder to say how this model will function in the humanities, where discipline focused publishing is a hallmark of scholarship. The journal is still very young. To get things going, SAGE is selling authors its publishing expertise, a seat on its well-developed and interactive online platform, and its brand reputation. Readers discover articles through search engines and indexes, or they can subscribe to email alerts or RSS feeds from SAGE Open’s site.
Why did you decide to publish your article in SAGE Open?: A response from one author
I was curious how the authors of the three Religious Studies articles currently available in SAGE Open first learned about the journal, and why they decided to submit their article to SAGE Open. So I emailed them. I received one response.
This author heard about the journal through a bulk email sent from a subject editor at SAGE. This author provided an extensive explanation for deciding to publish in SAGE Open, but it came down to the peer-review and article selection process.
When I received the invitation to submit to SAGE Open I initially ignored it; I get such automatic invitations from pay (or “page charge”) journals all the time. However, when I got a repeat email on March 12, 2011, I decided to look closer into their mission, and I read the following sentence, “As such, it evaluates the scientific and research methods of each article for validity and accepts articles solely on the basis of the research.” In plain words, the promise was if the research was sound it would be accepted, regardless of whether it fit the mold of [conventional or preconceived] solution strategies. Ergo, I submitted the manuscript.
Speaking of “pay (or ‘page charge’) journals,” I asked: “Did you pay the article-processing fee yourself, or did you have a sponsor (supporting agency, academic department, etc.)? Did you think the fee was a fair amount? Do you think the article-processing fee approach is a sustainable business model for open access?” The author responded:
I paid it myself. There was an introductory, discounted price of $195 fee (the regular price was $695). I believe the former is reasonable to be paid by the author. The latter would probably require assistance from a sponsor.
The author felt, however, that page charges “seem to be antithetical to the purpose of open access.”
I then asked if the author would share article-level metrics. “Is your article being discovered and read?”
According to Publish or Perish (which parses Google Scholar), it has not yet been cited. A Google search shows it has been discussed on one listserv and has been mentioned on two blogs. There was one inaccurate, off-the-wall comment on SAGE Open’s site, which allows readers to post comments after the journal. It is probably just too soon to tell if the article is being discovered and read.
Finally, despite reservations about article processing fees, the author was positive about recommending SAGE Open to other scholars, including scholars in Religious Studies disciplines.
I don’t know whether this author’s recommendation will inspire the confidence of my librarian/New Testament scholar colleague to review articles or submit his own for publication in SAGE Open. But at least we now both have a better understanding of what the “mega journal” concept is all about.