Be sensible about open access, but it’s still a good thing!

In a recent paper published in Trends in Plant Science, Anurag Angrawal presents a few “reasons to be skeptical of open-access publishing” (Angarwal, 2014) in order to stimulate debate over the current open access (OA) publishing model. Ironically this is behind a paywall so I thought I would summarise the content, which is more reasonable than the title suggests. Here is the gist of the four problems:

  1. Some publishers are charging too much – Few OA publishers are the idealist academic utopia that OA proponents have demanded, and some OA publishers charge exorbitant fees for little product to make healthy profits. Choose your publisher carefully.
  2. Some publishers do not exert sufficient quality control – Not all OA publishers put the effort into making papers look professional. This is not an issue that many academics have had to deal with, as journals in the past have been interested in high quality print editions. Again, beware poor copy-editing and type-setting.
  3. There is no advantage to OA in terms of citations – There is shrinking (if any) evidence for a “citation advantage” to open access publishing. Although initially supported, recent studies have firmly disputed that claim.
  4. OA is risky for early-career academics – Hiring/tenure panels will consider research on its merits, but given a choice between a candidate with a new, uncited OA article in an unknown journal and a candidate with a new, uncited article in a journal that has a high average citation rate they are more likely to opt for the candidate with high impact factor publications.

These are good reasons to be sensible about open access publishing (and, particularly, publishers), but I don’t think they are good reasons to be skeptical of the OA movement as a whole. The benefits remain: (1) increased public access to publicly-funded research, (2) higher impact through wider access (the study Angarwal cites to demonstrate the lack of citation advantage advantage does show increased readership of OA articles), (3) free use in education, and (4) easier replication and review of research (particularly through post-publication peer review). However, the most significant criticism above is (4). I was hired predominantly for my Nature paper. I also had teaching experience, international research experience, a range of other pretty reasonable papers, and a positive, collaborative approach to my work, but that Nature paper is the money-maker for my university under the current UK higher education funding model (the Research Excellence Framework). If that had been the same paper in an OA journal like PLOS ONE, things might have been very different. That is the only reason why I would recommend young academics think twice about publishing in OA – we could potentially end up with a process of natural selection where the believers in OA martyr themselves and are removed from the academy. But once you are there, it is your responsibility to help!

References

Agrawal, A.A. (2014) Four more reasons to be skeptical of open-access publishing, Trends in Plant Science, 19: 133.

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