Transformative Zombies

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” – Antonio Gramsci


The maligned “transformative agreement” is racking up a body count. Or, more accurately, it’s helping to create zombies…zombie journals. There has been a cluster of editors and editorial boards resigning (or getting fired!) from oligopoly-owned journals this year. And even though I once referred to “transformative agreements” (TAs) as “a new monster [vomited up by the publishing oligopoly] to haunt us,” I didn’t see this connection developing. I love seeing defections because they speak to a level of consciousness, disgust, refusal, and collective action that’s all too rare.[1] In this post, I will explore who’s defecting, why, where they’re headed, and, of course, an analysis of the contradictions in motion.



  • Design Studies – “the unacceptable actions of Elsevier of 1) demanding a seven-fold increase in publications or facing closure; 2) appointing a new Editor-in-Chief without experience of publishing in the journal and without notification; and 3) changing the scope of the journal without consultation either with the editorial team or the Design Research Society.”
  • Critical Public Health – it seems to boil down to T&F forcing the journal to convert from a hybrid journal to a fully ($3500) $APC-based model
  • NeuroImage and NeuroImage: Reports – “excessively high article-processing charges ($APCs) set by the publisher”
  • Journal of Political Philosophy – “Wiley has been pushing the journal to publish more articles per year—a demand they’ve made of other journals to varying degrees of success—because of the turn towards open-access publishing [“transformative”] agreements.”
  • Journal of Biogeography – “Dawson listed several concerns from his resignation letter, including proposed growth targets for the journal, equity issues in adopting an open access model in which authors pay fees to publish their work, and compensation for the editors.”

See a pattern? $APCs are the root cause. Editors recognize the inequity of $APCs, especially at oligopoly rates. These $APCs are priced well above the cost of production. Where editors once balked at the subscription price of the journals they labor for, they now protest the $APC. Oligopoly profits are directly tied to volume of articles and $APCs. Which means that editors are now pushed into a role that directly generates revenue. Some of the defecting editors note pressure to increase the number of acceptances. And a former editor of Journal of Political Philosophy links that phenomenon to “open-access publishing agreements”, more widely known as “transformative agreements.” Editors reject being turned into invoice-generating, yes people, but this is where the logic of capital has brought us.

Image of money counter operating

Undoubtably, other editors are pressured by the oligopoly to increase acceptances and are not going public about it. We’re witnessing the inevitable consequences of the TA. Increasing acceptances helps publishers maximize the potential revenue from their TAs. If the absolute volume of acceptances increases across their journal portfolio, it will likely yield more authors that come from institutions that signed TAs. Boom! Guaranteed revenue. The oligopoly surely has calculated the likelihood of this happening. And even if authors are not covered by a TA, a portion of them will find the money to pay a full-rate $APC. It makes a lot of sense to capitalists to increase acceptances in the hybrid model. Another consequence of the hybrid model (which the TA reinforces) is the diminishing value it causes for institutions holding traditional subscriptions:

When an institution signs a TA and makes more articles OA inside of hybrid journals, everyone else effectively pays more. The price of a subscription or “big deal” doesn’t drop as the percentage of OA articles in hybrid journals increases. This means that everyone else’s subscription immediately loses value as more articles are made OA through a TA [or $APC]. An institution is almost guaranteed to overpay for a subscription to hybrid journals (which are most of the oligopoly’s journals) when paying in advance as opposed to paying after the fact and accounting for articles made open through $APCs.

This, in effect, creates a first-mover advantage. The universities that signed the earliest TAs not only get a greater article dissemination-visibility-citation advantage over competing universities, but the latter are also set back in their subscriptions’ values.

The TA is sometimes branded as a “read and publish” agreement, but “read and publi$h and publi$h and publi$h…” seems more appropriate.


  • Design Studies – No new home
  • Critical Public Health – Editors heading to University of Calgary to start the Journal of Critical Public Health as a diamond journal (no fees for authors or readers)
  • NeuroImage and NeuroImage: Reports former editors going to MIT as Imaging Neuroscience with an $1,600 $APC. MIT Press received a $10 million donation from Arcadia recently.


It might seem self-defeating that TAs and $APCs are leading to the creation of zombie journals, but the oligopoly is extremely powerful.[2] They’re confident that they can withstand the opposition from editors, boards, and a not insignificant number of scholars because they’ve done it before. Zombie journals get new editors (possibly paid) and continue to publish for years, even with the new journal directly in competition. In this respect, a contradiction is heightened, not resolved. Glossa exists and so does zombie Lingua. The weakest link in a zombie journal seems to be reviewers. Authors can reasonably argue that they need to get published—add a line to their CVs—for career survival. The oligopoly can hire new editors.[3] But I’m struggling to find a good reason to review for a zombie journal.

Defecting to a new publisher that still charges an $APC creates a quantitative change and not a qualitative one.[4] It will carry inequity over to a new home. Any $APC is a barrier to someone. This does not negate the defection but illustrates the need for more work—as there are not many ports in academia waiting to welcome editors in this storm. Additional organization and power are needed to create new diamond journals, which would be a qualitative change.

We are in Gramsci’s interregnum. The system is rotting from the inside, and we can hasten that progress. Unite → Fight → Win

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[1] Relatedly, the u.s. staff of PLOS has unionized

[2] Lingua is earliest journal I can find that is referred to as a zombie journal.

[3] Journals should be required to disclose which editors are paid by the publisher, especially for those charging $APCs.

[4] Quantitative Science Studies, whose editors left the Journal of Informetrics, also levies a two-tier $APC at MIT Press