Friday, January 25, 2013

Open Access, seriously (1)

Last week I had talked about open access and the tribute to Aaron Swartz  through the #PDFTribute movement. I also had announced that I plan to change my habits and consequently publish and review exclusively in fully open access journals from now on - or use my blog as an outlet. This was mainly triggered by a post by Jonathan Eisen in which he showed a list of things one can do to really support open access. I know that some of them are perceived as not so easy to follow through especially by those of us that are not in a tenured position yet. That might be true but I thought it would be a good idea to go through them one by one and provide my ideas to make such a shift perhaps more desirable. The first suggestion in the list of ten is perhaps the one that has the most immediate impact but it is also the most controversial as there is so much anxiety connected to it.

(1) Only publish in fully open access journals.

Let's first clarify what is meant with fully open access journals. Full open access content is easily accessible online, available to anyone free of charge, and available for re-use without restriction except that attribution be given to the source. Especially the latter is not always given although authors are usually charged for open access options. Some publishers e.g. have adopted a business model through which authors pay for immediate publication on the Internet but the publisher nonetheless keeps commercial reuse rights for itself. This is not full open access! 

If you want to make sure you publish with the right journals and what your options are when it comes to full open access have a look at the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Make no mistake - open access costs money. Authors are charged for publications. Your paper won't be published out of the sheer goodness of the hearts of the publishers. With open access also came a shift of expenses. In the traditional publishing system authors didn't have to pay as publishers were making their profit by charging for subscriptions or per view of an article. The average scientist at a larger university was able to enjoy the advantages of institutional subscriptions for a multitude of journals without the need to budget for the costs. In the worst case they were part of the overhead already taken away. However, researchers at institutions with lower budgets had no access whatsoever and they perhaps still constitute the majority on our planet. Furthermore, the interested public was excluded as well although most of the research is financed with tax payers money. One particular field in my line of research is actually very bad when it comes to accessibility of research publications - taxonomy. Most descriptions, even the more recent ones, appear either in some exotic journals nobody has access to, or more and more they are published online in Zootaxa. Unfortunately, this journal is anything but open access (although they offer that option to authors at proof stage for a fee). They are the biggest player in the field and many species descriptions are published there but only a fraction of the scientists have access to them because they can't afford a subscription and neither can their institution. Species descriptions in particular should be considered common good and as such accessible to everyone without having to pay any fee. By the way, there is an open access alternative for taxonomists (ZooKeys).

Most open access journals charge at the other end and the fees vary greatly. This puts authors under considerable pressure as this is an expense they need to cover through their budget. However, I do see a good chance that often that can be included in grant proposals as separate line item. Most funding agencies are aware of the shift in the publication market and some actually expect grantees to publish exclusively open access. My experience with that is consistently positive and I always justified the additional costs with the need for open access. Also there are new models for fees in the works - one good example is a membership approach for authors such as in PeerJ.

That leaves us with the omnipresent impact factor argument. I know, the open access idea is rather young and certainly not fully established in our scientific circles. As a consequence impact factors are low to medium. If you want to make a big splash à la Science or Nature you won't stand a chance with open access although in recent years especially the press has been paying a lot of attention to journals such as PLoSONE or the ones from the BMC series. But do we really need to publish in big journals at all cost? Do we really need an impact factor and all related indices to assess the performance of a researcher? Is it really necessary that search committees at universities use these indices or just the fact that somebody has published in a high profile journal as selection criterion?

The internet has changed a lot for that matter and modern web tools provide better and perhaps more objective metrics. From my point of view the number of times one of my articles has been cited is of less value than the actual number of times it has been accessed over a given time. The first value provides a measure of how often my work was recognized by my colleagues but the second one tells me how many people in general found it interesting enough to download it. For example in less than half a year my blog has been accessed by more people than all my papers have been cited altogether in the last 10 years. None of these metrics provides any indication of the quality of my research. Like it or not if you want to know how good my work really is you have to read my publications.

What it comes down to is what we want for our little precious study. Is it more important to present it to as many people as possible, researchers and non-researchers alike or will we continue to try to place it in one of the big ones with ridiculously high rejection and subscription rates, or do we want to have it bedded comfortably in a more specialized journal read by a handful of like minded colleagues?

I made my decision in favor of accessibility because I think it will work for me and not damaging my career (and I am not tenured or even tenure track!). I am convinced that the world of science will eventually change to open access and it is about time to join the crowd.

1 comment:

  1. There is a nice link on high impact journal retraction