back to article Open access journals are vanishing from the web, Internet Archive stands ready to fill in the gaps

Academics studying the longevity of online scholarship say that 176 digital open-access journals have vanished from the internet over the past two decades. The findings are documented in a research paper distributed via ArXiv, "Open is not forever: a study of vanished open access journals." Authors Mikael Laakso of Hanken …

  1. ComputerSays_noAbsolutelyNo Silver badge

    Tragedy of the commons

    Once a business case has been formulated, we begin an ever accelerating creep into a corporate wasteland.

  2. A K Stiles

    OA publishing

    When some of the academic publishers have profit margins to rival Apple, it's no wonder they are trying to cling to the traditional publishing model.

    'Gold' open access isn't always (and in the larger publishers OA journals, almost never) 'free', it's just free to the end user to read. It still costs the author, or more often their institution or research funder, a potentially large amount (average around $2500 - $3000, per article), with some of the journals with high perceived prestige charging over $5000.

    To fix it would require some rebalancing in the academic institutions to allow the researchers to realise that the 'quality' and 'prestige' of the journal derives from the work they publish there and not from the journal itself, and for the institutions and research funders to realise the same thing, so not judge the researchers (in terms of their career development) on where they publish their research, but on the research itself.

    1. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: OA publishing

      Their profit margins are way higher than Apple. Apple pays about 70% of sales receipts to the authors of the content. The academic journals pay out 0%.

      1. swm Silver badge

        Re: OA publishing

        Actually they charge the authors for publishing with page charges.

        1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

          Re: OA publishing

          I believe that they also get reviewers to review submitted articles for free too. The business model for academic publishing seems to be highly profitable, except that no one seems to be able to break into it with a more equitable arrangement and maintain the quality of content. Maybe academics should start a union or something?

          (Mind you, it is not foolproof, I understand the editor of Nature rejected a paper outlining the Polymerase Chain reaction. And 'The Lancet' published that anti-vaccine article on MMR, fallaciously linking it to Autism.)

          1. CrackedNoggin

            Re: OA publishing

            "Science" not "Nature"

    2. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: OA publishing

      I think you'll find that some grant awarding institutions now make publishing papers in open access journals one of the conditions of the grant.

    3. BinkyTheHorse

      Re: OA publishing

      [...] so not judge the researchers (in terms of their career development) on where they publish their research, but on the research itself.

      But the current system is built on that. For reputable institutions, academics are evaluated on the performance metrics of the journals they publish in, the journals tend to only select sufficient-quality papers, and in turn those papers (ideally) reinforce the journals' performance rankings.

      So for anyone suggesting the current (definitely imperfect) system to be scrapped, the odium is on them to provide a superior alternative.

      1. ibmalone

        Re: OA publishing

        "the journals tend to only select sufficient-quality papers"

        That's the point where it falls down most often, there's no guarantee a "top" journal will accept good work (and they do accept work that's not so good) the prestige is often self sustaining, both on the submissions and readership sides, but decisions to send for review are not transparent and good work can, and does, get sent back almost unread. Then it gets submitted elsewhere, but over a wider spread of journals. Conversely, the biggest name journals have themselves been hit by fraudulent research before and it will continue to happen.

        This shouldn't be a problem these days; it's possible to track article impact independently, it's possible to search for and find new articles without looking through a journal's contents page, journal impact isn't necessary anymore but still used. There are better (still flawed) metrics, yet you will still see "publication in high impact journals" as a career development criteria. The goal of publication should be effective communication of your research, not which banner is on the front page.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: OA publishing

        "the odium is on them to provide a superior alternative."

        The odium is definitely on the profiteers.

        1. BinkyTheHorse

          Re: OA publishing

          Well, what do you know, I've been using "odium" as an equivalent to "burden of responsibility" incorrectly this entire time. Boy do I feel stupid.

          At least I've learned that today. Thanks!

          1. brianj

            Re: OA publishing

            For the record, as neither of you seem to have realised this, the word you're hunting for is 'onus'.

      3. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: OA publishing

        Journals could still do that. People could pay them for copies of a journal where the journal's employees have read a lot of papers and republished those they view as meritorious. The journal becomes a service which provides their reviewing expertise and a smaller number of total articles to the reader, and the reader pays for that service. At the moment, they're failing to really do that and simultaneously demanding fees from everyone involved who is actually doing the work. There's your alternate suggestion.

        A lot of research in academia is done at a place which at least pretends to be working for the common good, rather than a search for maximum profits; if they had profit on their mind, they might not publish the most interesting research. Yet there is a layer between researchers and the public (or other researchers), which takes advantage of this and reverses it.

        1. asdfasdfasdfasdf

          Re: OA publishing

          "journal where the journal's employees have read a lot of papers"

          That's how I *thought* these things worked. It actually turns out that not only do Journals not employ reviewers, they don't even pay them. To publish in a journal, you also have to peer review other papers for the journal.... ...and you don't get paid for it.

          1. ibmalone

            Re: OA publishing

            To publish in a journal, you also have to peer review other papers for the journal

            Not strictly necessary, but a lot of people believe it keeps editors sweet. I once attended a talk about being a successful early career researcher by a couple who work together and they reviewed a terrifying amount of papers in a year (close to 100 IIRC) largely for this reason. (They did not have a healthy work life balance from what I can tell.)

            Conversely, you also get asked to review for journals you haven't published in. You generally know this is about to happen because you will get an email telling you an account has been created for you on their submissions system.

  3. Dan 55 Silver badge

    "Newbold said it would be helpful to have the equivalent of youtube-dl [...] for open access papers"

    We do, it's the Unpaywall extension for Chrome and Firefox.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      That's great, if your model of archiving a journal is 'sit in front of a computer for a very long time laboriously downloading papers' If your model is 'write a program which will walk over the journal's site and download the content' it is useless.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I don't understand, as what is the difference between a machine or a human downloading it?

      I have to assume that wget didn't have a switch for $that and the IA said "oh well".

      Oddly however, if wget can't retrieve it, it would seem that the journal authors themselves have put these documents in places they don't want them to be saved... so what's up with that?

      Regardless, if the "Internet Archive" can't figure out how to parse a dumped stream archive, they need some serious work. Seriously, there's people out there saving 2 factor auth, live stream, multi-angled paid porn... and the I.A. can't figure out how to save a .pdf?

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        It's not that there is a problem downloading a single PDF. There's a problem downloading ten thousand PDFs. I could download them in bulk, if I were paid to click each link, get the URL, send it to wget, yawn, and find the next link. However, nobody's going to do that. Sites can take steps to make it hard for a program to find their files. They can arrange never to have a full list of things, avoid serial numbers, track and block things that look like bots, captcha when they don't need to, include circular links, change their format twice a week, only spawn links with JavaScript, require an account and log it out every ten minutes with required 2FA to get back in, [editor's note, removed the next nineteen suggestions as we presume any reader is both bored of this and gets the point by now]. Any or all of this could make it very difficult to get a bot to crawl a site successfully and actually retrieve all the content. Some of these sites aren't doing it for a public purpose; they're not Wikipedia. They want people on the site giving them the opportunity to advertise, so they'll do their best to hold their content back even when it's not their content and someone else wrote it.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        Seriously, there's people out there saving 2 factor auth, live stream, multi-angled paid porn... and the I.A. can't figure out how to save a .pdf?

        I'm sure there are. That's because those people are willing to put in a huge amount of time and effort to do that, because ... it's porn. People like porn, which is why the internet is mostly made of it. The Internet Archive could do this as well: but they have two problems: people aren't generally willing to spend hundreds of hours scraping the content of some site which is intentionally making it hard to do that when the only reward is a collection of academic papers very few of which count as porn and, even if they are, humans are really fucking bad at doing huge trawls like this reliably and completely.

        So, they could solve the first problem by just paying a large number people to do this. This is obviously no problem for them because they do, after all, have all the money in the world. That still leaves the second problem.

        TL/DR: it is not safe to draw conclusions from studying people's willingness to work very hard to steal porn, other than that people like porn, a lot. Who knew?

  4. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    Publishers make money from grants

    Research is normally funded by grants or simply a result of educational investigations - so essentially the general taxpaying public is funding it. But the research is then published in journals, normally access restricted if you are not paying for a subscription - essentially stopping the general public from being able to read and get educated from the research that they have funded. This is capitalism in action, just an effort to make money - the science is irrelevant.

    1. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

      Re: stopping the [...] public from being able to read [...] the research that they have funded

      Well, you and the general public are in luck, at least partly, e.g.

      ... at which point it may seem to many that you need quite a lot of domain-specific expertise (and very specific, at that) to even understand the point of a scientific article, let alone the content. I'm all in favour of open access science publishing, but it seems to me that almost all of the public will, on attempting a reading, almost always find themselves none the wiser. Open access is a good thing, but most likely not because a man on the Clapham omnibus will find it educational.

      1. skwdenyer

        Re: stopping the [...] public from being able to read [...] the research that they have funded

        The key thing about OA is that it allows papers to be read by people working in the field in startups, SMEs, etc. Those are often the people who need access the most, but have the least money to pay for things.

        Not everyone "qualified" to read a journal article is in academia.

        1. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

          Re: Not everyone "qualified" to read a journal article is in academia.

          Read my post again:

          1) I supported open access

          b) I said nothing about anything (access or expertise) being restricted to academia

          c) I said nothing about who might (or might not) be qualified, nor where they might be.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Indeed, when it comes to Capitalism, anything but money is irrelevant.

  5. GrumpenKraut

    Should be: "Junk journals disappearing"

    These are often open access (but have no useful peer review). They also skip that archiving part(s), mechanisms to guarantee the publications are available after close down (which happens occasionally). One can usually observe the poor quality by just superficial inspection; an extreme example (warning: brain cells will die when you look at this) is (intentionally no link).

    Some of those junk journals are actually duplicated versions of an established publication: the web site is scraped (sometimes with all existing papers) and re-published under a domain name similar to the original one. For those one has to check a few articles to notices the poor quality.

    1. Juillen 1

      Re: Should be: "Junk journals disappearing"

      For some reason, I enjoy reading research papers.. And yes, there's an inordinate amount of junk out there.. Usually in the lower impact sites, but not always..

      When a layman (well, slightly above layman, but still not a practitioner in the field) can read a paper, spot the logical fallacies and outright incorrect data, you know there's something wrong.

      Peer review isn't always a panacea, even in quality journals; it depends on the quality of reviewers, and that definitely is a variable. Especially in the grievance studies areas.

      It's nice to see this being studied though. As a first foray, it does what science is supposed to do, and says "Look, something's going on". I hope they get funding to follow up on it to start to determine why journals fail, and how to stop that. Much as though Junk Science papers exist, it's going to be of historical interest in a few decades to look back on it, and point to just how irritatingly stupid "Published scientific papers" could be. There's a lot of work being done in general to improve quality in core STEM subjects, so it'd be a useful thing to be able to pull out papers and show "This is how NOT to do it" and explain why some of the processes are necessary.

      1. GrumpenKraut

        Re: Should be: "Junk journals disappearing"

        > Peer review isn't always a panacea, even in quality journals;

        Indeed, cf. the retractions in Nature et al.

        > I hope they get funding to follow up on it to start to determine why journals fail, and how to stop that.

        Junk journals "fail" as soon as no more income is generated (because that is their only purpose). It is usually within two years that the web site vanishes altogether.

        About: "This is how NOT to do it". There are tons of papers out there for that. Usually the problem is something that is slightly nontrivial. The nonsense in junk journals is glaringly obvious to everybody with even the slightest knowledge in the field. Check the "paper" in my post above for how far that goes.

  6. Long John Silver

    Sci-Hub, Library Genesis, and the Internet Archive lead the way

    Digitally encoded cultural artefacts require organised preservation lest loss occurs. This includes academic literature in 'papers', learned books, and student texts. Digital 'content' is, compared to paper embedded equivalents, cheap to replicate, transmit, and store. Seemingly, unattended digital archives degrade more quickly than stores of paper and depend upon backward compatible electronic technology. On the plus side it is not too costly for digital archives to be replicated across the planet in sets of single storage locations and in distributed storage donated by users of Internet connected devices (e.g. as with the Freenet project). The fate of the ancient Library of Alexandria can thus be avoided.

    To properly preserve digitally encoded culture and to make it accessible requires shift in thinking about the concepts of property and ownership. 'The Ten Commandments' seek to protect a man's oxen, asses, and wife, from appropriation by others; that seems reasonable but wherein lies justification? A little thought makes clear this arises from the physical nature of said 'property'. If oxen, asses, and women could be replicated for negligible effort no man could be said to have been deprived of use of his property by another.

    'Intellectual property' always was a dodgy notion: ownership of abstractions known as ideas. With, for example, printed books 'ideas' and the substrate (paper) containing them were inseparable. A book was inevitably a physical object. Books can be traded in the same manner as widgets. The property of being tradable rests entirely upon that being traded possessing scarcity.

    Modern technology demonstrates the inherent impossibility of imposing scarcity upon sequences of binary digits held on electronic devices. Increasingly vain attempts are made to prop-up ersatz markets in 'rights' through imposition of monopoly induced pseudo-scarcity. Fortunes continue to be made through distribution of 'content'. Yet, disobedience to copyright is growing. The legal concepts of copyright and patents can no longer be founded upon physical realities; copying a sequence does not deprive anyone of anything. But, one might say, it deprives the originator of income.

    We live in a cock-eyed world where a couple of centuries or so ago it was ordained a creator could control and draw almost indefinite 'rent' from distributing his ideas embedded in physical substrate. Turning this on its head, and in light of our digital era, it is clear that digital sequences have zero intrinsic monetary worth regardless of the cost of making them. What can be traded is skill in constructing sequences others admire: not the sequences themselves. Leonardo da Vinci sought patronage, not 'rights'. These days, the internet facilitates seeking patronage (e.g. crowd funding) from across the globe.

    The concept of intellectual property rights is arbitrary and persists only because hitherto nations have considered it advantageous. Challenge (i.e. disobedience) by one 'rogue' nation will be sufficient to collapse the entire rotten edifice. Said nation had better be beyond reach of USA military.

    Academic literature exists under a tacitly different copyright regimen from that of, say, a caterwauling 'pop musician'. There are distribution 'rights' but authors cannot prevent other people from deriving fresh angles on an idea; nobody owns an equation and its logical consequences.

    Academia depends upon derivation. Popular music relies on preserving each dire emanation in aspic: woe betide someone borrowing a sequence of musical notes and taking the idea forward. Thereby, general culture has innovation stifled: one may have to wait for 70 years after an originator's death before developing his idea. Meanwhile 'rights' to the originator's idea can be traded on a pseudo-market.

    But one could opine entertainment as differing in intent from academic endeavour. Not so, each is based on the pleasure principle. Genuinely creative people innovate because they enjoy (feel driven) so doing. In all contexts of culture innovators may be judged by the satisfaction they give others; satisfaction encompasses indulging curiosity and aesthetic considerations (e.g. a deeply moving string quartet and an elegant mathematical construct).

    Clear separation of freely mutable (with attribution) 'content' from distribution rights in academia paves the way for recognising general cultural malaise. 'Distribution' rules the roost. It is where money lies.

    Academia is where the most successful opposition to the stranglehold of 'rights' is to be found. Sci-Hub and Library Genesis lead the way. The Internet Archive does sterling work too; it is under threat from avaricious holders of 'rights' angry about the Archive relaxing borrowing restrictions during the Covid-19 epidemic.

    Creation of across the board archiving of digitally encoded culture, made freely accessible, must rely upon people contemptuous of so-called 'intellectual property law'


    Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

    1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Sci-Hub, Library Genesis, and the Internet Archive lead the way

      Indeed, let's stop rewarding creators. That will surely improve society. Why, just look at the contrast in content now: ad-driven freely-published content is universally superior to content produced through conventional means such as traditional publishing. I would much rather read a blogger's My Little Pony fanfic than Thomas Pynchon.

      Let me guess: you've only ever worked in academia?

  7. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

    Only 176 disappeared in the last 20 years?

    Doesn't sound like much. The whole OA boom happened in the last 20 years (well, maybe there were precursors on the late 90ies), and OA journals proliferated into many thousands and tens of thousands. So some small fraction don't maintain their websites anymore? Is it enough to discern a worrying trend?

    And are there any really valuable, high quality journals among those that disappeared? Which of them will be missed? I looked very briefly through the paper and noticed 3 titles of journals that disappeared. I have never heard of any of them - none is in a field that I had any connection to - but none sounds remotely like Nature or Phys. Rev. Lett. or MNRAS or The Lancet. So, it is right in general to lament loss of recorded information, but how severe a loss was it for humanity?

  8. HildyJ Silver badge

    Internet Archive

    If you have any spare money, I'd consider donating some of it to the Internet Archive. I think of it as investing in infrastructure.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It seems most of the vanishing journals are in social science. Well, as a real scientist I am fine with that. Almost all social science is rubbish and papers in it would only be of interest to psychologists studying gullibility and mass delusion. Or would be, if psychology was not among the junkiest of all social "sciences" with a replication rate of at best 15%.

    So let them sink, along with the crap they contain. Nothing of value will be lost.

    1. Sparkus

      absolutely spot on mate

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Internet Archive - Needs Help

    I have used Internet Archive for years, and it seems to be getting very slow in the last year or so.

    They really need to fix that or at the current rate it will not be usable soon.

  11. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Hmm, a possibly 'solution':

    reckon I might just spread the pearls of my intellect before the accumulated 'wisdom' of el Reg readers (fine, fine people). Free to publish, free 'peer' review, and I'm sure all the comments are archived forever. Of course, referencing my 'publications' might be tricky:

    [nn] Man, Eclectic, comment 75 (or thereabouts) on article in 'The Register' 2019.

    Then again, I do like the paper copy, so maybe not :o(

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