5 Sep 2013

Turning open access polemic into publications

I came across a blog post recently (Open access is the only way to publish like a Prius is the only car to drive) that highlighted what is perhaps the biggest barrier to publishing open access right now - and it's not the article processing charges levied by many publishers:
"There's more to "affording" something than the dollars. Like practically anything, academia is a hierarchical system. There's the obvious hierarchy that can be seen in career stage, but there's the sometimes less obvious divisions that exist."
In spite of the increased focus on opening up research of late, this hierarchicial system still often dominates when it comes to scholarly publishing preferences, with researchers and authors being pressurised into publishing in a subset of 'top-tier' high impact journals. These same journals are often subscription titles, which lock up the authors' ideas inside a paywall, limiting access to, and the potential impact of, their work.

One would think, a priori, that publishing research openly should lead to more citations, ceteris paribus. However, this correlation is often not borne out in reality, largely because a lot of the most important papers and most significant research are still being published in traditional, closed access journals, because the prestige and impact factors of such publications lend obvious benefits to an academic CV. Consequently it is very understandable that open access may not be a priority for many researchers, particularly when some studies find that there are low citation gains for gold open access articles. This is of course because many open access publications are relatively new, without the prestige, tradition and JCR-indexing of many subscription titles, and thus may represent a risky choice of venue for authors.

Research assessment at the institutional and even national level often fails to take account of other forms of impact, so there is no real incentive for researchers to publish open access. Indeed, in some cases they may even be penalised for it. It is axiomatic to say that good research is good research, no matter where it is published. Similarly, high quality journals are high quality journals, whether they are open access or subscription-funded. Many researchers claim that they will happily publish in OA journals - as long as these publications are viewed as equally valid venues by the scientific and academic community. Yet this will not happen by itself, somebody has to make the first move, and the second move and so on to realise the change. Sandra Schmid from UT Southwestern makes this point in her analysis of the DORA declaration from the employer's perspective: "our signatures are meaningless unless we change our hiring practices". Schmid describes how the Department of Cell Biology is changing their recruitment strategy to:
"identify future colleagues who might otherwise have failed to pass through the singular artificial CV filter of high-impact journals, awards, and pedigree. For example, we encourage applications from candidates who are ready and eager to launch their independent careers, but might feel sidelined because their paper has yet to be, or perhaps won't be, published in a high-impact journal."
This is exactly the kind of step forward that I believe can help encourage more people to publish their work in open access venues, and not harm their career by choosing to do so. Until this happens, it is unfortunately likely that we will continue to see studies which show a limited, if any, citation advantage to publishing open access.

The theme of next month's Open Access Week is Redefining Impact. For more information visit http://www.openaccessweek.org/

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