In the open

31 August 2016

Interview with

Erin McKiernan, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City

The scientists on the eLife podcast are publishing papers that are revolutionary for a number of reasons. Apart from being scientifically outstanding, they're born digital which means they don’t exist in a bound volume on a library shelf somewhere. They're also Open Access. Meaning that from the minute they appear, anyone anywhere can read them for free. It’s not just eLife. Many other journals are following similar pathways. But how is this going down with the research community? Is it being welcomed, ignored, or regarded with suspicion perhaps on career progression grounds? One person who’s been looking into this and the potential benefits of the Open Access movement is physics professor Erin McKiernan, and she spoke to Chris Smith...

Erin - One thing that you're very worried about as a scientist is whether people are reading your work and then referring to it on their own work, siting it. There are a lot of studies that show that if your work is published in some type of open platform, whether it be repository that’s open to the public, or a journal that’s open to the public, then that work tends to get cited more often than work that’s published in a closed platform. That intuitively makes sense. If more people can read your work, more people can understand what you did and the results of your study then they're going to be more likely to cite it and refer to it in their own work.

Chris - What about the question though that people do view certain journals as top tier and they aspire to publish a paper in those journals? They're not necessarily Open Access. How do you persuade them that they shouldn’t do that? They should publish their paper somewhere open access instead?

Erin - I don’t think we necessarily need to persuade them to move away from those closed venues entirely. Part of the problem is that the incentive structure is such that we are still giving people lots of points so to speak in evaluations for publishing in those high profile, high visibility journals like Nature and Science. What we can tell them instead is there are many different ways to show your work. publishing in a journal that’s open for everyone to read, an open access journal is just one way. Another way is to publish in the journal of your choice and then you can take a copy of your article and post that separately on an open platform. Most of those journals do allow researchers to do that. So, even though the article in the original journal is not open to everybody, there is a version online that other people can access. And that way, we give researchers options. We tell them, “Yes, we understand that this is something that you need to do to advance your career. That’s okay, as long as you put a version somewhere that people can read.”

Chris - The other thing that I think does bear on the research community’s collective mind, they actually really relish the objective measure – if you can call it objective – of the impact factor. When you have nascent journals – eLife is a good example of this which haven't been going very long – it’s very hard to have a similar metric to offer a scientist because most people, when I talk to them about this, “Well, I won't publish in certain places because there's no impact factor or there won't ever be one.”

Erin - Yeah, this reliance on impact factor has really been damaging to both scientists individually and I think science in general, you put that incentive for people to publish in those high impact factor journals. That’s where they're going to publish or try to publish. In fact, sometimes they may even change the type of study they're doing to try to get into those journals. That’s when we should be really worried because now, it’s driving the science that we’re doing. I think we all agree that that type of incentive shouldn’t be the driving factor for what type of science we’re doing. So, I think again, that’s something that we have to change at an incentive level. So there is a movement for example, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment – is a statement signed by both individuals and organisations all over the world saying that we recognise that impact factor is not a good metric. It doesn’t speak to the quality of science that we’re doing, and that it should never be used as an evaluation metric.

Chris - If I approach the Chief Executive of the publishing houses, of places like Nature, Elsevier and so on, who do paid-for journal subscriptions, they will argue that they charge a very fair price because they bring enormous editorial skills to the table and their distribution network, and so on, and these all costs money. They have to recoup their costs by selling that copy back to the community. So, how do we make sure that Open Access doesn’t suffer a loss of quality because there isn’t the same financial model there to support it.

Erin - I think Nature is a special case because they do provide a lot of editorial support that some other journals don’t supply and still charge a high price. So, at that point we have to ask, what are those journals doing that’s really justifying the price of their charging? I think it’s important that if the journals want to make that argument, that they should be transparent with those numbers. I would love to see how the numbers breakdown for lots of different journals in terms of the services that they're providing for the money that they charge. It is a concern what type of business model we have going forward because right now, a lot of the Open Access journals, to cover those costs, they charge a fee to the author to publish their article – article processing charges and those APCs can be very high. That’s a price that’s out of reach for a lot of scientists especially scientists in developing countries. And so, I think we have to look for different models. Latin America has been revolutionary in this space, so they have a couple of different platforms – one called SciELO, another called Redalyc – where they publish thousands of journals that are not only free for the author to publish it but also free for the public to read. A lot of those journals are supported by university consortiums and other types of funding like that.

Chris - When you put your case to early career scientists who were the ones that you're most eager to insure have confidence in the Open Access movement, what sort of reaction are you getting. Are we seeing a regime change or are people beginning to favour this concept?

Erin - I'm not sure. I wish I had an idea of how widely accepted it is. It’s very easy sometimes in the Twitter space, in the Facebook space to get in the neck or chamber where you're with people who are like-minded. So you end up thinking that these views are very widely held. In fact, I think that there's still a huge percentage of scientists who first of all don’t even know about some of these issues. They work in wealthy universities that are able to pay the costs of access to these journals. They don’t realise that access is a problem for a lot of people. So, I think that we still have a lot of work to do, but I think that we’re also seeing good momentum. And so, I think that’s a very positive sign.

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