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Dozens of scientific journals have vanished from the internet, and no one preserved them

(sciencemag) – Eighty-four online-only, open-access (OA) journals in the sciences, and nearly 100 more in the social sciences and humanities, have disappeared from the internet over the past 2 decades as publishers stopped maintaining them, potentially depriving scholars of useful research findings, a study has found.

An additional 900 journals published only online also may be at risk of vanishing because they are inactive, says a preprint posted on 3 September on the arXiv server. The number of OA journals tripled from 2009 to 2019, and on average the vanished titles operated for nearly 10 years before going dark, which “might imply that a large number … is yet to vanish,” the authors write.

The study didn’t identify examples of prominent journals or articles that were lost, nor collect data on the journals’ impact factors and citation rates to the articles. About half of the journals were published by research institutions or scholarly societies; none of the societies are large players in the natural sciences. None of the now-dark journals was produced by a large commercial publisher.

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Still, “The analysis demonstrates that research integrity and the scholarly record preservation … are at risk across all academic disciplines and geographical regions,” says Andrea Marchitelli, managing editor of JLIS.it, the Italian Journal of Library, Archives, and Information Science, who was not involved in the study. Publishers should dedicate money to improve preservation, he says.

A new mandate by research funders set to take effect in January 2021 requires preservation schemes—but most online-only journals currently lack such plans, the authors say. The new preservation rule is contained in Plan S, backed by mostly European research funders. Scholars financed by Plan S funders must make the articles OA (immediately free to read upon publication).

Overall, only about one-third of the 14,068 journals indexed in the Directory of Open Access Journals in 2019 ensure the long-term preservation of their content, the preprint study found. Some commercial services offer it, and at least one—the Public Knowledge Project Preservation Network, a multiuniversity initiative—does so for free.

It’s not clear how many subscription-based journals also have gone dark in recent years. But such journals have some advantages over OA titles when it comes to preservation, says Mikael Laakso of the Hanken School of Economics, one of the authors of the new study. “Subscription-based content has historically been better covered by libraries, either by having paper copies on shelves or electronically,” he wrote in an email. “There’s been established processes, budgets, and culture in place for libraries to preserve purchased content, while what is just out there available for anyone to download for free has not been enrolled in such processes and thus runs the risk of falling through the cracks if the publisher vanishes.”

There’s little consensus about who is ultimately responsible for digital preservation of OA journals—publishers, authors, libraries, or universities. Preserving OA journals may pose a particularly big financial challenge for those publishers that do not charge authors to publish articles. Library budgets, meanwhile, have faced cuts or minimal growth. Articles that appeared in vanished journals could also be preserved in university repositories—a form of preservation called “green” open access— but not all institutions or funders mandate that the manuscripts be deposited in such repositories.

Preservation “is a time-consuming activity,” Marchitelli says, “and sometimes seems less important than working on the inclusion of the articles in bibliographic databases,” which European funders often use to evaluate the quality of university scholarship.

To determine the list of the 176 vanished journals, the authors of the new preprint did some digital detective work because clues about them are fragmentary. After the journals go dark, for example, their names no longer appear in bibliometric databases.

The authors—Laakso, Lisa Matthias of the Free University of Berlin, and Najko Jahn of the University of Göttingen—defined a vanished journal as one that published at least one complete volume as immediate OA, and less than 50% of its content is now available for free online. Some of the content may be accessible as printed copies or in paywalled commercial services.

They used a historical archive of internet content, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, to determine when production ceased (6 years after the journal started, on average) and when content disappeared from the internet (within 5 years for three-quarters of the journals). The journals had been based in 50 different countries, most of them high-income ones. Most of the lost journals published articles only in English.

Laakso notes that many predictions have been made that OA journals represent the future of scholarly publishing. But, he adds, his study suggests that “maybe we could also spend a bit more time looking at more problematic aspects that could be improved as the publishing model matures.”

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