The Robber Barons of Open Access Publishing
Non-transparency, double standards, long wait. Facing this accumulated unpleasantness, the subject of debate, almost certainly, is the so-called double blind peer review. Given a plethora of critical and less critical considerations throughout academia, there is no need to rehash all the pros and cons here; neither do I want to make a general statement on digital humanities or digital medieval studies. Indisputably, a thorough peer review is capable of improving any scholarly article, and even a rejection does not necessarily put an end to attempts at publishing a specific paper. However, at a time when scholars are advised to publish in so-called high-impact journals only, in order to collect research points to get more money and better positions, ‘peer review’ has grown to the ultimate advertising slogan for any journal in vague fear of losing relevance.
Within the field of medieval studies — the playground of a range of specialists — the overall number of journals has always been manageable. Furthermore, the traditionally strict marking of areas of responsibility makes it rather tricky to formally cross community borders by publishing in a journal tied to a different discipline than your own. Thus, it comes as no surprise that medievalists often face a very small number of options for publishing. Under the last decade, to be sure, many well-established publishers have discovered the possibility of putting their journals online. Yet, that does not necessarily imply an increased number of annual issues or even more articles per issue. Even if a paper has successfully passed the first or second review, awaiting publication (or at least galley proof) can easily stretch out over a year or two, due to a long queue of other papers. However, a growing number of highly motivated doctoral candidates, postdoc researchers, and assistant professors are populating the grounds of medieval studies, eager to contribute to their field’s maintenance and development. Moreover, most academic job applicants are demanded to submit a whole bunch of their ‘most important’ publications. To put it in a nutshell: in the humanities, the quantity of academic output is more important than ever.
In recent times, born-digital open access journals have become an alternative to handle this quantity: they are often less cleaved to the traditional restrictions of printed media, and open minded towards new types of peer review such as open peer commentary. Given the undeniable enrichment of medieval studies through such journals, what is the purpose of my brief contribution? Most medievalists, I assume, have subscribed to several newsfeeds, providing them with updates on virtually any topic within the field, including calls not only for papers, but also for reviewing and editing start-up journals. Some of these offers are quite tempting — all journals have started from scratch. Yet, all is not gold that has key words such as ‘humanities’, ‘digital’ or ‘medieval’ in its title.
Occupying a popular term of medievalism and social criticism, I want to draw medievalists’ awareness to the growing number of twenty-first century robber barons on the publishing road. Being a global phenomenon, the problem of so-called predatory open access journals is already well-aware at many universities and research facilities, but, as far as I can see, still somewhat neglected (at least) within German academia. What is it all about? As mentioned above, it is certainly a good thing to be able to choose among several journals for publishing, and a journal offering prompt peer review and quick publishing is all the more welcome. But what if the author is informed about a fee to pay only after publishing? All the more, as a brief investigation indicates that such a fee ex post can easily range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per paper. And what if an established scholar never comes to know that she or he promotes a journal by being listed as a member of the editorial board for example? A pioneer in uncovering such unethical (though not necessarily illegal) publishing behaviour is Jeffrey Beall, academic librarian and associate professor at the University of Colorado (Denver), running the website “Scholarly Open Access”. Nevertheless, it is hard to define and assess the complex phenomenon we are talking about. Where is the line, one has to cross to be on “the dark side of publishing”?
So far, medievalists do not seem to be a priority target of dubious journals and their instigators. However, according to Beall’s 2015 “List of Predatory Open Access Publishers”, the number of potential, possible, and probable publishers from the dark side has grown from 225 in 2013 to 693 in 2015, with the number of suspicious journals growing from 126 to 507 in the same period of time. This list can of course be subject to debate, but the emergence of more and more dubious journals is not to be put aside. The less so because Beall claims that “many of those publishing in predatory journals are graduate students and junior faculty who lack the experience to recognize the predators. The publishers have learned to exploit this naivete”. Here, we are back at the initial point. And from this point of view, it is only a matter of time before even medievalists have to deal with this new type of wolves in shining armour.
 Cf. van Nahl 2014, “Odyssee 2.0? Wege und Irrwege digitaler Publikationen in den Geisteswissenschaften”, in Jahrbuch für Internationale Germanistik 45/2, pp. 129–136; van Nahl 2014, “Eine schöne Nebenbeschäftigung? Perspektiven einer altertumskundlich-mediävistischen Wissenschaftsgeschichte 2.0”, in DhdBlog – Digital Humanities im deutschsprachigen Raum 10/2014, http://dhd-blog.org/?p=4170 [June 12, 2015]; van Nahl 2014, Die Flüchtigkeit der Information. Wissenschaftsgeschichte im digitalen Zeitalter (Transformationen von Wissen und Wissenschaft im digitalen Zeitalter 3), Berlin; van Nahl, “Digital Medieval Studies”, in The Ashgate Research Companion to the Medieval Saga, ed. Ármann Jakobsson & Sverrir Jakobsson, Farnham (Surrey), forthcoming.
 One might, however, ask whether the term ‘predator’, suggesting a kind of evolutionary phenomenon beyond human control, is appropriate.
 Butler, Declan 2013, “Investigating Journals: The Dark Side of Publishing”, in Nature 495, pp. 433–435, http://nature.berkeley.edu/~sewolf/FLUXNET/Miscellaneous/Dark-side-of-Publishing.2013.NatureNews.pdf [June 12, 2015]; cf. further Haug, Charlotte 2013, “The Downside of Open-Access Publishing”, in The New England Journal of Medicine 369/9, pp. 791–793, http://www3.med.unipmn.it/intranet/papers/2013/NEJM/2013-02-28_nejm/nejmp1214750.pdf [June 12, 2015].
 Elliott, Carl 2013, “On Predatory Publishing: a Q&A with Jeffrey Beall”, in The Chronicle of Higher Education 6/2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/on-predatory-publishers-a-qa-with-jeffrey-beall/47667 [June 12, 2015].