Maintaining an open access journal painlessly with Open Journal Systems

April 11, 2014

A lot of work goes into producing an academic journal. Such a publication carries articles from researchers and scholars which together represent the cutting edge in a field of human endeavour. Plenty of work goes into most similar types of publications too; magazines and newspapers all need careful copy editing, proof reading and type setting. There could be multiple contributors writing dozens of articles and they all need bringing together into a single publication. Academic journals have these needs too, but they also have the additional requirement of peer review. Needless to say, this is a complex workflow that involves many people who all need to remain coordinated throughout.

Publishing online journals

Online academic journals have been greatly increasing in popularity in the last few years. Instead of a paper-based issue delivered a few times a year, online journals distribute their papers electronically via the Internet. Anyone with a web browser can visit a journal’s website and read the latest research and opinion. Very convenient, but delivering all this is no easy task. Behind that website there needs to be a software application that allows the editors to control the whole publishing process, from article submissions to final publication.

Anyone interested in setting up an online journal might turn to some kind of publishing software to achieve their goals, something like a blogging platform or a content management system. After all, preparing articles and publishing them for online consumption is the bread and butter of such systems. However, software like this doesn’t support some of the subtleties of academic publishing out of the box, and adapting it can be very challenging.

Our client’s troubles

We recently consulted for an online journal who had been producing issues of their publication using WordPress, the famous blogging platform. With several plug-ins and the imaginative use of some features, their WordPress had been retooled to produce an academic journal instead of a blog. However, after releasing several issues, the editorial board had decided it was time for a change because using WordPress like this was getting too painful. Despite the adaptations, there was still too much communication overhead and too many manual, error-prone steps.

These guys came to Endocode seeking our help. They had learned of an alternative journal publishing system called Open Journal Systems (OJS) which was already in use by thousands of online journals all over the world. OJS is a PHP-based web application that allows you to produce an academic online journal. Our clients wanted to know if it could offer them a better way of doing things.

Discovering Open Journal Systems

An analysis of OJS looked very promising and revealed several key advantages. Most obvious was the full support for an efficient and academic workflow. To describe the first part of the process briefly: an author with a candidate article submits it to the site, which then goes through several rounds of peer review by editors and/or other reviewers associated with the journal before it’s voted on for acceptance. This part is a key requirement in the process of academic publishing and OJS helps immensely by taking on much of the responsibility throughout: the status of the article, which users should currently have outstanding tasks, informing everyone when something changes – it’s all managed by OJS. When a paper arrives, OJS informs the editor by email. When a review is scheduled, OJS makes it available to the reviewers and drops a message in their inboxes. When a paper is accepted, OJS ends the review process and messages the copy editors to get cracking on the publication process. And on it goes.

There’s a ton of other features that support the requirements of academic journals: dividing issues into sections (e.g. Articles, Editorials, Letters to the Editors etc.), setting review policies and author guidelines, integrating with external academic archiving services – these are just a few examples. Where OJS doesn’t suit your needs out of the box, it has a plug-in system, allowing you to install new features. Plug-ins proved helpful when our clients wanted to add some of their own custom pages of content. While OJS doesn’t allow you to do this by default, we found and installed a plug-in that lets them easily create their own static content whenever they like.

It makes things all rather simple.

Given its name, how does OJS fit into the whole open access debate? Open access to scholarly publications has become a hot topic recently, with sharp criticisms against established pay-walled journals as well as an expansion in newer open access journals. For anyone who wishes to follow the open access model, OJS can help.

The cost of distribution is sometimes cited as a reason for restrictive copyright practices that allow the recouping of those costs. But an OJS-based journal, being a virtual publication, has no need for printing and shipping. Distribution no longer soaking up so much money means it’s possible to free up the restrictiveness of the copyright. Of course, there are still some costs involved, like hosting servers, but these costs will be lower than those of distributing printed issues.

Regarding how open your journal actually turns out to be, it’s really up to you. There’s no obligation to use a permissive copyright licence, so you could stick with the traditional restrictive terms if you so wish, although OJS puts itself firmly into the open access camp by recommending users to choose a Creative Commons licence for their content. In any event, don’t assume that relaxing your copyright policy means the end of revenue; there are alternative funding models. For example, PLOS journals a pioneering collection of open access journals – charge a publication fee to authors instead of a subscription fee to readers.

Open source

But the ‘Open’ in OJS’s name refers just as much to open source as it does to open access. Being hackers, the most appealing feature to us at Endocode is that OJS is a completely open source product (GNU GPL), meaning we have complete access to source code and can adapt it endlessly and exactly to the wishes of a client.

This ensures that when we deliver an OJS system, we’re not just delivering a journal system, we’re delivering your journal system.