Munich, Germany (Scicasts)Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly, a PhD researcher at the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, offers a new way of defining academic career success in a world (almost) without paywalls.

This article is her response to our report "Evolution of Open Access Policies and Business Models: Which Way Leads to The Future?".

"Why do we need open access to research articles? Academic research is funded by the public with the purpose of acquiring and spreading knowledge for the advancement of society. In order to fulfil this purpose, outputs of all publicly funded research should be accessible to all members of the public without additional paywalls.

Subscription journals that charge fees to access articles foster the spread of knowledge only amongst those that can afford it. Access to research publications is important for the education of both scientists and non-scientists. It is important for scientists because it allows every researcher in the world to read original studies without delay and enables them to build upon the acquired knowledge faster, which is reflected in faster citation rates. Open access is the best way to make research more efficient and more collaborative.

Open access is also important for non-scientists. It should be in our interest that research findings are shared openly and accurately with the public. Misconceptions regarding scientific issues in the public sphere can best be prevented by providing free access to primary research data. However, many research articles are still published in subscription journals.

Guidelines given by funding bodies such as those of Horizon 2020 that set open access publication as a standard requirement are essential for bringing about more openness regarding the dissemination of research. Such guidelines motivate both authors and publishers to practice open access publishing. Yet, the majority of authors base their decision on where to submit their work on the reputation and impact factor of a journal rather than on the option to publish open access.

However, there is actually no conflict between publishing open access and high impact. In fact, open access leads to more citations due to an enlarged pool of potential readers. In recent years, more and more open access platforms have been launched. Yet, a handful of non-open access subscription journals still dominate the publishing landscape.

Sadly, publishing in one of these journals (or not) is a factor that can make or break researchers’ careers. The pressure to publish in these renowned and prestigious journals drives researchers to continuously submit their best work to these subscription journals instead of taking an apparent risk of submitting to new open access journals, creating a vicious circle.

From my perspective, authors’ attitudes towards journal choice are a major obstacle for open access publishing because authors will choose what is best for their individual careers and are concerned about how open access publications will be perceived. In order to overcome this obstacle, I think it essential that we change the way we evaluate research success.

Even though the impact factor is based on the mean number of citations of a given journal and is thus a measure of the impact of an entire journal, we often transfer this measure to our judgement of individual articles. But the impact factor actually provides little information about the impact of individual studies. A small number of highly cited articles can shift the impact factor of an entire journal substantially. Yet, articles published in the top subscription journals with the highest impact factors are automatically perceived as higher quality.

I think that research articles should be evaluated more by their individual impact rather than that of the journal. When potential employers or funding bodies evaluate the success of a researcher, it may be tedious to read all of his or her articles and it may be hard to judge how important a publication will become for the field in the future. Nevertheless, I think the success and potential of individual scientists should not be measured by the impact factor of journals in which they have published. Instead, assessment of an individual’s previous studies should be based mostly on post-publication evaluation.

The idea of post-publication peer reviewing has been introduced by several new publishing platforms and this does not exclude scrutiny with regards to the validity of scientific data, which should either way be a prerequisite for all publications. But on top of pre- or post-publication peer reviewing, further post-publication evaluations could be based on whether others can validate the conclusions, how important the work is considered by the scientific community and on the impact of the specific findings on further scientific progress.

All these criteria would be independent of the journal in which the findings have been published. If we focused more on these post-publication assessments we wouldn’t need to worry any longer about the potential disadvantages of publishing open access.

How could we achieve such a change in the attitude if traditional subscription journals have such a big influence on our perception of research quality? We might need to find a compromise between implementing open access and our dependence on traditional subscription journals. Maybe in the future, subscription journals could play a different role in science publishing.

These journals also recommend other research articles in reviews and shorter highlight articles. What if they did not publish any original articles anymore but focused exclusively on such secondary reviews?

The paywall of these journals could simply move one step away from the original research articles towards secondary analysis including recommendations, filtering and clustering of research outputs, which, I believe, will become increasingly important as the amount research outputs increases. I believe that many institutions would be happy to pay for subscription journals that offer in-depth analyses, reliable recommendations and summaries. In this way, researchers and funders could continue to seek guidance from the top subscription journals that would offer professional evaluations of articles published elsewhere. It would then matter less where an article is published and more which top journals recommend this article.

Whenever a scientist's CV is evaluated for employment or funding, decision makers could include these recommendations into their evaluation. To make this process even easier, there could be a factor that rates the quantity and quality of recommendations and the number of citations of a given article, completely independent of the journal in which it was published in the first place.

The advantage of such a factor over the article's amount of citations only is that recommendations can be made much earlier, even before an article is first cited. This would be a compromise between relying on the top subscription journals as a measure of success in academic research and making science publishing more open. These proposals would require a substantial change in our publishing habits but I believe that a substantial change might be necessary to reach the goal of open access to all research output."

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