'There is no other model to pursue, except for diamond open access'

Publishing impact according to Maura Burke

The Journal of Trial & Error started as a joke among friends. A group of five Master students, all studying History and Philosophy of Science, had some beers after a seminar on Open Science in which an image was presented of the scientist as a genius who never fails. As they were all engaged in the critical analysis of what science is, they were thrown off by this idea and started to wonder: why failures are never published?

Foto van Maura Burke
Maura Burke

They started the Journal of Trial & Error, which is nowadays part of the Center of Trial & Error, providing space for ongoing and independent reflection on academic culture, systemic structures, research and academic education.

The Journal of Trial & Error presents itself as ‘an independent, diamond open access journal redefining failure’. There is a core team, the editorial board, and a number of employees that fluctuates between ten and twenty. Most of them are PhD candidates.

Maura Burke is editor-in-chief.

Why did you think failure needed to be redefined?

"The failure thing is funny because we never emphasized failure. Because we are the Journal of Trial & Error, it somehow immediately goes to people’s minds as failure.

From the get-go our catchphrase was that we were going to close the gap between what is researched and what is published. Researchers are not encouraged to share the negative or null results. Consequently, anyone working in research is not getting all the information they need in order to make sound decisions. For instance, what methodology was used, am I going to research a question that has been researched already, are all the null findings suppressed?

We hope to increase transparency by publishing  examples of sound, methodologically robust research that nonetheless gives a negative result. We are not hiding from these things, we are proud of the work that we do. We asked a question, we got an answer, it is no, but it is still an answer.

So we don’t mind the association with the failure. It is a very hot topic and it brings people to us and gives us the opportunity to push the question a little bit more. Like a why. Why are you thinking about failure, what is failure, are you sure you are failing? Are you not just doing research?"

From the get-go our catchphrase was that we were going to close the gap between what is researched and what is published.

Why did you decide to publish it as an Diamond open access journal or not, let’s say,  gold open access?

"We just don’t believe that any other mode of open access is open access."


"They can be band-aid solutions to transitioning away from different models, but gold open access is not open access: it does nothing to disrupt the kind of chokehold that the massive publication companies have on the public institutions that are fully funded by tax money and government money and our own money. With hybrid journals it is the same thing, it does not change a thing. Green at least gives the researcher a sort of power to disseminate their own information, but they are still beholden to publish somewhere to post it green, so that does not do anything either.

We were very concerned with the role of publishers as a kind of actor in academic life. We saw that, as long as we are funneling millions of euros into the hands of these large publishing companies in exchange for them utilizing our free labour that we do as writers, peer reviewers and editors, then we are not doing anything to disrupt that power balance between the people who create the knowledge and the people who disseminate the knowledge. So we knew from the get-go that there was no other model to pursue, except for diamond open access."

There are several routes to open access. The golden route means publishing in open access journals where the author has to pay Article Processing Charges (APCs), the green route involves depositing articles in a university repository, the hybrid route is publishing in a journal in which some articles are available open access and others only by paying a subscription fee. Finally, the diamond route means that the publication costs are borne by an institution or fund. Read more about the routes to open access.

Do you think that Diamond journals are causing a revolution in the publishing landscape?

"I hope so. I think a lot of us were really hopeful that open access would be some kind of revolution in the publishing landscape but it turned out not to be that way at all."

Why not?

"Because we as research institutions are still so dependent on these massive corporations that we are kind of at their beck and call. They can now come to us as the University of the Netherlands and say: well, you want to continue to have access to these papers, we ask your researchers to pay APCs of ten thousand euros a paper. That is not disrupting anything, it is just changing the burden of responsibility from one hand to another.

The publishers do not feel a financial impulse to motivate them to change. And why should they? They are one of the single most profitable type of company that exists in the world. Their margins exceed nearly any other corporate sector."

Large publishers own years of research that scientists need access to in order to do their work.

You are painting a very bleak image!

"I mean, it is not bleak, but it is a serious issue. I don’t find it to be bleak, I just find it a moment of reckoning with the truth of the situation. If we bury our heads in the sand, then we are going to allow it just being the way that it is.

The situation is only going to change if you say: okay, we are not giving money to these large publishers anymore. They own years of research that we need access to in order to do our work. The only hope that I have with open access is that we don’t further that dependence. And that is by transitioning to publishing open access and coming up with some way to pay for access to the publications that are already behind these companies’ ownership. And that is diamond open access.

Of course it does not have to be revolutionary overnight, these things are systemic, they are global. There is a lot of money  and negotiations involved in it, so it is not a kind of overnight switch you can have. Starting to take piecewise action is the only way to hand over to the next generation of scientists something that functions better than what we have right now. And for me that is not bleak, that is just great that we are in this moment where we have reckoned with the reality of it and we have been given an opportunity to make some changes towards that. I find that very exciting, I am very optimistic."

Do your fellow researchers feel the same way as you do? Is it quite a thing among the younger generation or are you in your own Trial & Error bubble?

"I think it is a bit of both. Of course, I am very much in this bubble and I have been in this bubble for a very long time now. Since I started my PhD in Utrecht, I have been part of all kinds of Open Science initiatives as are the people I work with.

But then I am also a researcher independently of that. I do my own research that is completely unrelated to this, so there I can make contact with people who are not so obsessively involved with Open Science. There I can see as well that there is a greater knowledge of publishing as something that could be an accessory to research and not the heart of research. Researchers like to write, we want to communicate with our peers, we just don’t want to be beholden to an outside structure when we are doing that."

Do you think Utrecht University has a kind of pioneering role in this whole process of change?

"When you start looking into how publishing works, you see what actually goes on. The way in which H-indexes work, or having a higher chance of being cited if you go to a top journal. From all the meta science that comes out of that, another imaqe appears that is different from the sort of fairytale that you are sold as a researcher. And that really begs the question that is also asked in our Rewards and Recognition initiatives: why are we using publishing as a way to judge progress and individual merit in science? That really does not seem to be substantiated. So it is great to see that a place like Utrecht University takes these questions seriously. Unfortunately I think that we are a really rare exception to that story whereas across the globe publication is still used as the gold standard of determining success in science."

Why are we using publishing as a way to judge progress and individual merit in science?

"I think that Utrecht University has done a lot to really embrace the tenets of Open Science. Not just by looking at open access, not just by looking at open data, but really trying to understand what the movement was about: reconstructing the scientific enterprise. In that way Utrecht has really been a pioneer and quite revolutionary in the way in which they have embraced these tenets and have looked towards shaping the science for the future. I think they have done a good job of that. I think it is unique and a really great precedent to be set. I hope that other universities look towards Utrecht as an example of how you can do this right."

More information

Have a look at a shortlist of Diamond Open Access journals for the Faculty of Science.

Do you want to find more inspiring impact stories? Or would you like to share your own experiences? Read the other impact stories or contact the library.