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Open access mirror journals: an experiment in brand loyalty

Article information

Sci Ed. 2023;10(2):154-157
Publication date (electronic) : 2023 July 19
doi : https://doi.org/10.6087/kcse.308
T. G. Masaryk Water Research Institute, Praha, Czech Republic
Correspondence to Libor Ansorge libor.ansorge@vuv.cz
Received 2023 May 7; Accepted 2023 May 30.

Introduction

Open access (OA) mirror journals have been launched by Elsevier as an alternative or supplement to original non-OA journals [1]. These OA mirror journals have the same title, aims and scope, editorial board, and peer-review process as their parent journal, and are distinguished by an “X” after the name. However, because the OA mirror journals have their own ISSNs (International Standard Serial Numbers), they are completely separate journals, which does not fit with Harrison’s [1] assertion that by publishing OA mirror journals, Elsevier is responding to authors’ need to publish in OA journals while simultaneously not wanting to sacrifice their association with the leading journal brands in their field. Asai [2] compared 22 pairs of Elsevier’s OA mirror journals with their parent journals and found that the parent journals were more preferred by authors. This essay analyses Elsevier’s OA mirror journals as an experiment of one publisher, which has a dominant position in the scientific publishing market. Elsevier has set an ambitious price level for article processing charges (APCs) in these OA mirror journals. The evolution of the price level for mirror journals, compared with the evolution of the price level for APCs for other Elsevier’s journals, is used to assess the success of Elsevier’s experiment.

Thinking About the Aim of OA Mirror Journals

The use of a journal name that may lead to confusion with an established scientific journal is considered a predatory practice by publishers [3]. The question then arises—why did Elsevier introduce these OA mirror journals that are only distinguished from their counterpart journals by the “X” in the title? Scholarly publishing has undergone significant changes in the past 30 years, driven mainly by the digitization of the publishing process and the development of electronic media and the internet. A small group of major commercial publishers has gained a dominant share of the scientific publishing market, the current situation in scientific publishing has been likened to an oligopoly [4]. The main disadvantage of oligopolistic markets is that the price is not only determined by the market but is significantly influenced by oligopolies through their decisions. The evolution of academic journal subscription prices over the past three decades has been the subject of a number of papers. The ever-increasing costs of providing access to scientific results and the resulting inaccessibility of research results for many scientists led to the declarations in Budapest (February 2002), Bethesda (June 2003), and Berlin (October 2003) at the beginning of the millennium. These declarations called for the introduction of OA to research results [5], which was intended to make research results available to everyone, without the need to pay huge amounts for journal subscriptions. The idea of OA is still controversial in the scientific community [6]. Firstly, this is because OA passes the cost directly onto the scientists who suddenly have to account for the cost of publication in their budgets, whereas in the case of subscriptions it was a “problem” for institutional libraries—that is, it was a problem for other organizational units of the institution. However, one of the main challenges of the introduction of OA is the creation of new equitable and sustainable models for funding the publication process that are not based on journal subscriptions.

Currently, the most common model for funding publication costs in OA is the pay-to-publish model, where authors of an article pay an APC to the publisher for services related to the publication of the work. However, the pricing policies of commercial publishers in particular are often criticized because APCs are “unprecedentedly high and are also very unfair to researchers in developing countries who simply cannot afford them” [7]. High APCs replace inequality in access to results with inequality in the ability to publish [8]. There is a rational core to this criticism, which is why most major publishers have publishing support programs for scientists from low-income countries.

Elsevier has been criticized for prioritizing the interests of shareholders over those of the scientific community, whose voluntary service on editorial boards or peer review is used to make its business highly profitable [9]. Elsevier more or less makes no secret of this when it directly states that APCs are set depending on journal quality, the journal’s editorial and technical processes, competitive considerations, market conditions, and other revenue streams associated with the journal [10].

Are OA Mirror Journals Successful or Not?

Although scientists are willing to pay relatively high amounts for APCs [11], why should they pay several thousand US dollars to publish an article in a journal that is brand new, has no established reputation, and whose bibliometric indicators are effectively zero? Elsevier tried to make this dilemma easier for article authors by creating the aforementioned OA mirror journals, which at least had the appearance of being established reputable journals. This is a business strategy based on the assumption of brand loyalty, but (as I will show below and as Asai [2] illustrates) it was not successful.

In the present analysis, I compared Elsevier’s APC price lists, which can be downloaded from web.archive.org. In Elsevier’s APC list from June 23, 2019, there are 44 OA mirror journals with APCs ranging from $500 to $3,750 (average, $2,633). In the APC list from January 13, 2023, there are only 22 OA mirror journals, with APCs ranging from $1,470 to $2,630 (average, $2,022). These 22 OA mirror journals had APCs from $1,225 to $3,750 (average, $2,730) in 2019, i.e., the average APC decreased by 26.67%. Four OA mirror journals experienced an increase in the APC, while 18 experienced a decrease (Table 1).

Comparison of APCs of open access mirror journals

It is also possible to compare the price development of APCs with other Elsevier journals offering OA publishing. In addition to the 22 OA mirror journals, 1,982 other Elsevier journals were found in both price lists. Twenty-two other journals do not have an OA price in the 2023 price list, which may mean any of the following: (1) the APC is waived for new open access journals, (2) the APC is sponsored by a third party, or (3) the journal owner invoices authors directly. Thus, the total OA prices in 2019 and 2023 were compared for 1,960 journals. Of these, one journal (Musculoskeletal Science and Practice) did not have a listed business model in 2023 (it was a hybrid journal in 2019), 1,725 journals had a hybrid model, and 234 journals were OA journals (of which 29 journals used a hybrid model in 2019 that changed to the OA model). These journals had APCs ranging from $150 to $5,900 (average, $2,501) in 2019, rising to a range from $200 to $10,100 (average, $3,183) in 2023. That is, from 2019 to 2023, the average APC for these 1,960 journals increased by 27.25%. For 271 journals the APC decreased, for 136 journals the APC did not change, and for 1,553 journals the APC increased.

Table 2 shows APCs are increasing for all groups of Elsevier’s journals, except for the OA mirror journals. This suggests that the set APCs for OA mirror journals were too high and were not accepted by the authors. Elsevier responded to this by lowering the APCs of most OA mirror journals and closing 22 established OA mirror journals. However, a detailed analysis of the reasons for this development would require an analysis of both the behavior of the decisive players in the oligopolistic academic publishing market during this period and other factors influencing authors’ behavior in choosing the journals in which to publish their articles. Rational authors choose a journal for their article with a view to maximizing the utility it will bring. Here, the method of evaluation and remuneration established in a certain country or scientific institution may be an important factor, as evidenced by studies from many countries in the world, although these studies have also been challenged [12]. For example, in the Czech Republic, the current performance-based research funding system, the so-called Methodology 17+ [13], prioritizes articles in journals indexed in Web of Science or Scopus that are ranked in the first and second quartiles of the field. Conversely, articles published in journals located in quartiles 3 and 4 are considered undesirable, which has led to some universities banning publication in these journals [14]. Logically, these new OA mirror journals start their positions only in the fourth, or perhaps third quartile, and moreover only in the Scopus database. Therefore, it is not surprising that Czech authors have published their papers in only eight of the 22 OA mirror journals and the total number of articles is only 20, corresponding to 0.62% of the published articles in these 22 OA mirror journals (as of 19 February 2023). However, as of the same date, the total proportion of articles by Czech authors published in Scopus-indexed journals in the period 2019–2023 is only 0.73%—that is, the difference between the proportion of articles by Czech authors published in OA mirror journals and the proportion in all Scopus-indexed journals is not so large as to be statistically significant.

Comparison of APC of different groups of Elsevier's journals

Conclusion

The founding of OA mirror journals was a kind of experiment by Elsevier. It is difficult to conclude whether the OA mirror journals were a successful experiment or not, because Elsevier’s real business objectives with these OA mirror journals are not publicly known and the observation period is still short. Only time will tell regarding the success and long-term impact of individual OA mirror journals. Nonetheless, this experiment showed one important thing in particular. Although scholarly publishing is in the hands of a few dominant, mostly private publishers, these dominant players cannot set APCs entirely of their own volition. The closure of many of these OA mirror journals and the change in the pricing policy set by Elsevier in 2018 have shown that scientists are still considering whether publishers are providing them with adequate value for money in the form of APCs, and publishers still have to reckon with this behavior by authors.

Notes

Conflict of Interest

No potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported.

Funding

The author received no financial support for this article.

Data Availability

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analyzed in this study.

Supplementary Materials

The author did not provide any supplementary materials for this work.

References

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Article information Continued

Table 1.

Comparison of APCs of open access mirror journals

ISSN Journal title Currency APC
Year 2019 Year 2023
2590-1621 Atmospheric Environment: X USD 1,400 1,470
2590-1370 Biosensors and Bioelectronics: X USD 3,500 1,790
2590-1516 Contraception: X USD 3,200 2,100
2590-1532 Cytokine: X USD 3,400 2,430
2590-1745 Energy Conversion and Management: X USD 3,100 2,170
2590-1613 European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology: X USD 2,500 2,210
2590-1575 Food Chemistry: X USD 2,800 2,350
2590-0544 Chaos, Solitons & Fractals: X USD 2,200 1,730
2590-1567 International Journal of Pharmaceutics: X USD 3,700 2,200
2590-0560 Journal of Asian Earth Sciences: X USD 2,600 1,890
2590-0552 Journal of Computational Physics: X USD 2,800 1,690
2589-9155 Journal of Hydrology X USD 3,200 1,800
2590-1591 Journal of Non-Crystalline Solids: X USD 2,200 2,140
2590-1524 Journal of Structural Biology: X USD 2,750 2,310
2590-1508 Materials Letters: X USD 3,100 1,470
2590-1478 Optical Materials: X USD 1,500 1,620
2590-1427 Sleep Medicine: X EUR 3,360 2,400
2590-0420 The Journal of Pediatrics: X USD 3,750 1,900
2590-1710 Toxicon: X USD 3,300 2,210
2590-1362 Vaccine: X USD 1,225 2,000
2589-9147 Water Research X USD 1,875 2,230
2590-1397 World Neurosurgery: X USD 2,600 1,700

APC, article processing charge; ISSN, International Standard Serial Number.

Table 2.

Comparison of APC of different groups of Elsevier's journals

APC (USD) Mirror OA journal (n=22)
Other OA journals (n=234)
Hybrid journal (n=1,725)
Undefined journal (n=1)
All journals without mirror OA (n=1,960)
2019 2023 2019 2023 2019 2023 2019 2023 2019 2023
Maximum 3,750 2,630 5,200 5,780 5,900 10,100 2,500 3,400 5,900 10,100
Minimum 1,225 1,470 250 260 150 200 2,500 3,400 150 200
Average 2,730 2,002 1,756 2,092 2,602 3,331 2,500 3,400 2,501 3,183

APC, article processing charge; OA, open access.