Mega journals – peer-reviewed, open-access publishing of more than 2,000 articles annually – provided 6% of 2015’s scientific literature. Today, they publish nearly 25%. An opinion piece written in part by Dr. John Ioannidis, the researcher that everyone loves to hate or hates to love, considers the consequence of mega journals increasing dominance.
As is often the case, before jumping into the article’s content, a bit of background is in order, specifically regarding impact factor. A journal’s impact factor is measured by how many other publications cite articles that originally appeared in that journal – it is a proxy for the breadth of distribution and relative importance of a journal. Nature’s 2021 impact factor was 69.4, and PLOS One was 3.72. A three is good, 10 is great, and Nature’s impact factor is, well, a force of nature. In a separate analysis, researchers found that the impact factor was skewed across articles, with just a few highly cited papers contributing to Nature’s impact.
Publication of research, especially in high-impact journals, is the coin of the realm in academics; it is what promotion and tenure (P&T) committees really consider – teaching is not as rewarding in the eyes of P&T committees.
Mega journals respond to this thirst for publication by requiring the submission to be sound science, not necessarily a “breakthrough” report. They remain peer-reviewed, and there are some guardrails on their selection because too many articles with too few citations will lower their impact factor and make them less desirable to authors. More importantly, a rising impact factor in these journals results in higher publication fees charged to authors.
As it turns out, these days, your scientific publication is often self-publication, at least in terms of cost. With authors paying for the privilege of publication in your journal  and peer-review for “free” by academics looking to burnish their reputation before P&T committees, the publication of science is not only a big business, but it has profit margins of 20%.
The primary objection to these journals is that they foster an already dysfunctional publication system that
- Quantifies research into “objective” measures to be used in academic promotion.
- It involves fees that disadvantage researchers without deep “financial pockets.”
- Siphons money to publishers who do little but own the “Park Place” or “Broadway” of the scientific publication Monopoly board – some might argue that many mega-journals are more like the “Electric Company” or “Reading Railroad.”
- They are open access; anyone can read the studies. For those not in academia with a library covering the costs of subscriptions or working where funding is limited, this opens up significant research knowledge.
- By setting a publication standard of “sound scientific work regardless of the nature of the results,” they reduce the bias of selective reporting. Mega-journals enhance “diversity of perspectives and opportunities to challenge orthodoxy.”
- Mega journals enhance competition and challenge the monopoly of scientific publication. The top five publishers, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Wiley, and SAGE, publish nearly 50% of all scientific articles creating an oligopoly – a publication market controlled by a few companies. Mega journals may compete on price for publication and time from submission to publication.
Mega journals are not the only answer to diversifying and distributing medical knowledge. There are other necessities, including transparency in research for protocols and data. Their business model is not unlike the top journals, which remains problematic for those short of discretionary funds. But their size affords them an opportunity to flip the business script, paying for peer review and nudging academia to search for other measures to determine promotion.
Source: The Rapid Growth of Mega-Journals: Threats and Opportunities JAMA Network Open DOI: 10.1001/jama.2023.3212