Open access is the only way to publish like a Mercedes* Prius is the only car to drive

Aug 29 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I know open access is a regular topic on twitter and in the blogosphere, (and I've already been beaten to this punch, here and here and here) but it's something that many of us grapple with. Before I start I want to state that I support open access, have published in OA journals and paid for OA in journals that provide that option. But I don't limit myself to only OA solutions. Why? Because I can't afford it.

We'll deal with the financial aspect of OA in a minute, but 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.

Institution of employment is next on the list, followed closely (and slightly more opaquely) by lineage. Who did you train with? Where did you train? Who has your back when it comes time for nominations, honorary positions, invitations, etc. It's pretty clear from a variety of studies that gender and ethnicity further complicate these factors and add sub-layers to the whole mix. What does this all have to do with OA? Plenty.

The OA movement is admirable and I wish I could be more a part of it. The truth is, I care more about getting a foothold in my field and establishing my career than I do about the OA movement. Is that selfish? In the short term, yes. In the longer term, I hope to be in a better position to use OA journals without being concerned about the evaluation of my publication record. I didn't start my career with an academic silver spoon, so my margin of error is slimmer. I network the shit out of contacts because I can't count on being introduced around to all my mentors' National Academy friends. There are certain doors I have to pry open, and I don't have to deal with the gender and ethnicity issues that others face on a daily basis. Even for the riff raff, I have it pretty good. Does that mean I can pick journals simply because they are OA? No.

For one, regardless of Impact Factor, there are certain journals that have broad name recognition in my particular corner of science. Whether it is tenure evaluation, grant panels or nomination boards, the journals on your CV matter. It's one thing to say "those panels need to change their thinking!" when your job and funding are highly secure, but another for those of us scrapping it out. Then there's the problem of where My Community will see my publications. Some OA journals are not on everyone's radar. Can I take that risk?

The second issue is the actual cost. Those who say "It's just $1000" maybe haven't published in a while because the fees for PLoS everything but One are a bit steeper than that. Three grand for PLoS Biology? Add in institutional overhead and now we're at $5K. I've spent that on preliminary data that got us a grant, which supports three people in my lab. Where's the intersection of OA morality and my lab's bank account?

I really respect both the work that comes out of Michael Eisen's lab, and his passion for causes he throws himself into. However, browbeating junior faculty and postdocs into making career choices that are likely to not be optimal for them because of his own moral convictions is not the way to greater OA acceptance. If one of us doesn't make tenure or never gets a TT job because of our journal choices (or because we burn up critical start-up on OA fees), that neither helps the OA movement, nor science. But casualties are just the price for a morals war, right? Infantry are always the easiest to replace.

Thanks, but I'm going to continue to make journal choices that maximize my ability to compete in my field. If that's morally reprehensible to you, enjoy your high horse. I'm going to keep my people paid and ensure they leave my lab in a position to compete for the jobs they want. Martyrism never looked good on me anyway.

*h/t Isis for the title correction.

18 responses so far

  • Feel the same way. I admire Eisen's passion for sure, if not his dogmatism. I understand that he feels that junior folks are the ones open to change, but self-immolation is not helpful. I am surrounded by full profs at the top of their game who publish in glam journals as a point of pride. Seem like if someone should take the risks and costs of OA it should be them.

  • miko says:

    And I have not seen @mbeisen single out any of the hot shot N/C/S-regulars he is connected to on twitter and call them "hypocrites" in public, the way he did @DrIsis. I could be wrong.

    The incentive structure has to be changed by those who grant the prizes, not those competing. I am hopeful that my generation of scientists will reject a lot of the received nonsense of the boomers -- I see evidence pointing both ways -- but we are not yet the ones in charge.

  • becca says:

    The title analogy can be taken further:
    "All cars are evil, as they are morally inferior to biking. However, if you MUST drive a car, a Prius is the only way to go"
    "All journal-based publishing is evil, as it is morally inferior to arXiv. However, if you MUST publish in journals, Open Access is the only way to go".

    Really, the moral highground is on the *access* issue, not how you get there, and there are more cost effective solutions than PLoS Biology. Publishing only with journals that allow you to publish a preprint (at least) on your own website or with arXiv is kind of where my own internal moral compass points as "a good enough effort". But then, my car only gets 40mpg (but it was half the cost of a Prius).

  • […] and postdocs) joined in. I feel their support, and I am so thankful for it (see Proflike for a particularly good post on the matter), but my core point about how it is particularly problematic to ask minority scientists to be risk […]

  • Jen says:

    I'm in a bit of a Catch-22. I work at a primarily-undergrad university. Our library's journal subscriptions are definitely not what I was used to as a grad student or postdoc - for example, I can't access one of my discipline-specific journals at all, and the others are available with a one-year embargo. So, my students and I rely on OA articles and journals, especially for journal clubs. However, I am not allowed to use my startup funds to pay for publications, and it will be awhile before I am competitive for an NSF grant. As a result, my most recent paper was published in one of the key journals in my subfield (not OA), but my students won't be able to access it for a year unless I make it available to them.

  • I mostly agree but tend to disagree on the journals people actually read. Reading is much more driven by topic these days (mainly Google Scholar or other search engines) outside of a smallish set of top-tier journals, because it's simply impossible to follow every relevant journal and still have time for anything.

    But I do agree that OA should be primarily driven by people with lower risk, i.e. tenure track with secure grant funding.

  • Sorry, meant tenured, not TT

  • qaz says:

    You know, the reason those glamour journals are glamour journals is because the people who publish in them tend to be the big name/famous ones that we all "have to follow". If those people published in another open-access journal, then we would all want to publish there, because those would be the journals everyone is reading. It's all about fashion. Us less-famous people don't get to decide what's "in". As with fashion, the rest of us will follow the famous. The problem is that Eisen doesn't have his colleagues on board with him, and he can't convince them, so he's trying to convince the masses.

    Your colleagues in your immediate field read by topic (generally, they'll be reading you because they know who you are anyway), but the real problem is the people outside your immediate field. The ones who study tiger running when you study bunny hopping. Because those other ones are on your study section and your tenure committee and your award-deciding committees, and they don't know you or your field. As you get more famous within your community, the community you need to reach gets larger and larger, and you need to reach even more general groups, and those people only read stuff about your topic in the real glamour mags.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    Major changes in science are always lumpy and difficult to transition but the point about Open Access is that publishing should be this way! The problem is that we have an entrenched subscription/advert supported system that will take time to move to open accessibility. The economic models need time to adapt. Monies saved by reduced library subscriptions (which have escalated many times faster than inflation) need to be diverted into author costs. Moreover, the last four papers I submitted were a mix of open access and subscription but all cost me. Two subscription based journals charged per black and white figures and had an extra tax for colour. Another charged a $75 submission fee (and bounced it back without review). In other words, it is expensive to publish and the only questions are who pays who and who gets to read what.

    I also doubt Open Access will do much to quell the issue of Journal Impact Factors.

    Publish in the most appropriate journal (taking all things into consideration) and make your work available to as many people as possible.

  • Peter Suber says:

    Remember that most OA journals charge no publication fees, and that in any case you can make your work OA without publishing it in an OA journal. For more details, see my handout on how to make your own work OA, [ ].

  • I agree with OA, and do publish in OA journals, but costs often seem higher than they should be. For example, the CEO of PLoS gets $536K [in comparison, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation gets $197K] and the CFO/COO gets $303K in salary. PLoS' revenues are $22.5M and expenses are $18.3M. Using other budget info (see below *), this means that for a $2900 article:

    $108 is going to just CEO & CFO salaries

    $535 is going to the equivalent of profit (revenue minus expenses, though it makes sense for PLoS, which is still fairly new, to build up an endowment in this way)

    $759 for "production costs" (though this doesn't include other staff costs, IT costs, etc)

    $0 for reviewer costs.

    And remember this is for a well-run nonprofit organization, which many OA journals are not. It does make me hesitant to spend limited lab funds when I know that my $2900 includes a $535 donation to PLoS' future: that's money that could have a significant impact on a grad student's future, instead.

    One thing to consider, given your budget limits, is OA Green journals (a type of OA, not a company). These allow self-archiving (or institutional archiving) your peer-reviewed preprints but still rely on charging for subscriptions for the final print version rather than charging authors. Peter Suber's link above has more info about this.

    I think in general going to OA is a better adaptive peak: it makes it harder for us, but better for the public (think of a relative trying to look up medical info and hitting paywalls). But I agree with your concerns about what happens with early career faculty while the field is traversing the valley between the peaks.

    * Info from 2011, from PLoS' financial disclosure ( )

  • qaz says:

    JimWoodgett says "Monies saved by reduced library subscriptions (which have escalated many times faster than inflation) need to be diverted into author costs. " Yeah, right. Can anyone imagine an administrator or anyone who actually has power over library budgets saying this? All that is going to happen is that OA costs are going to be taken out of our already tight research budgets. Maybe I should only start publishing in OA after my administration agrees to pay for my author costs...

    I agree that the journal costs are crazy. But, as pointed out by BrianO'Meara, it's not clear that the OA costs are any more sensible. There are lots of problems with our current system. Somehow, I don't think OA is the big one. (I'm more concerned about the instability in funding caused by the current grant system.)

    Besides, NIH requires that all publications be freely available to the public 12 months after publication. Is the whole OA fight really about those 12 months?

  • Jim Till says:

    Newer, credible OA journals are tackling the cost issue. An example is eLife. There is no fee to publish in eLife while the journal is being established. Another example is PeerJ. This journal uses a membership plan instead of per article fees. The basic membership plan is US$99 for one publication per year. The downside of these two journals is that neither has a journal impact factor (JIF) yet. Although efforts are being made to halt misuse of the JIF (see, for example, DORA) reform will probably be slow in coming.

  • Hi, Jim. Many open access journals start with no publication fees when they begin to build up a base of articles, though given the backers of eLife, it's clear that they're doing their journal for the health of the community, and so I imagine (or at least hope) that when they do start charging fees, they'll be reasonable.

    PeerJ is an interesting model, but I do worry about it long term: it's a for-profit journal, and these are introductory membership costs. Early adopters won't have to pay again, but will we be in a situation a few years from now after introductory prices go up where adding an undergrad to a paper (one with fewer than a dozen authors) means paying $300 or more? [already, it would be $139]. This could lead to pressure against including junior authors (a few hundred dollars may seem trivial, but it's not to students or cash-strapped labs).

    I guess what I'd like to see, and maybe eLife will be this, is an OA journal that is non-profit (perhaps backed by societies or foundations) that is truly cheap for authors. arXiv has a per-paper actual cost that is less than $20, I believe (there was a recent paper, I think in Nature, comparing costs). Reviewers work for free. Associate editors and editors work for free or a tiny amount of money. Online only means distribution is cheap. Copy editors aren't free, but an even bigger cost is apparently the software many journals use, though I would imagine that a LaTeX-based workflow could be effectively free. Seems odd that the addition of free reviewing and science editing, and some copy editing, bumps the cost from ~$20 to $1200 or more.

  • Jim Till says:

    Brian: Like you, I hope that the per-paper fee (when there is one) for eLife will be reasonable.

    I agree that the membership fees for PeerJ will probably increase. Indeed, I wouldn't be astonished if Elsevier (not my favorite publisher) acquiredPeerJ .

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Right, but once again we run into the issue of junior faculty and needing to publish somewhere that will be respected by your university when it comes time for evaluation. Cost will be second to that.

  • […] Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand.  Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially […]

  • David Stern says:

    Open access is nice and convenient for users, but I really don't understand this supposed moral dimension of open access. If you have access to the internet you can find a paper using Google Scholar and then if it costs subscription fees that you can't afford you can send an e-mail to the author for a copy. In my experience this almost always works. By contrast, open access requires payment of fees to publish which many researchers cannot afford and so seems to favor the well-funded elite. Yes, PLOS waive fees for those who cannot afford to pay, but this is far from universal. So, it comes down to me to be a more efficient approach to supplying users with articles but a more regressive system in terms of access to publication.

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