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Understanding the dilemma of Open Access with Charlesworth Knowledge: Follow your heart, or advance your career?


One recently released survey of US-based early-career researchers (ECRs) revealed that more than 60% of those surveyed had ‘extremely favourable’ feelings towards Open Access (OA) publishing models. It’s becoming clear that a majority of researchers tend to feel that the outputs of their endeavours, their results, should be freely available to everybody, irrespective of country or institution. In fact, free access to research, especially that which is funded by national or tax-payer funded grants, is one of the goals of the European Union-led Plan S initiative and explains the rise of preprint servers in several fields. A corollary of preprint servers is that the academic community as a whole, rather than just selected peer reviewers, can more easily provide comments and assessments of the quality and usefulness of work.


Importantly, however, survey results also show that it’s equally clear to ECRs that OA publishing is not necessarily the best option to advance one’s career. This dilemma was clearly illustrated in a recent BBC story in which one leading proponent of preprint servers and ‘community peer review’ admitted that she still preferentially publishes a good deal of her most significant outputs in traditional journals because of their better impact factors (IFs), and of the positive impact that publication in these journals will have on her career.


It’s apparent that it is possible to be a very strong proponent of OA publishing and community access to results while at the same time not actually using these outlets to better serve your career interests. Until this dilemma is resolved, will OA be able to truly thrive and be fully accepted by the academic community?


The take-home message here is clear: OA is viewed favourably by the research community but traditional models are still the norm when it comes to academic assessment, career progression, grant funding assessments, and promotion. It’s still the case that academics measure one another’s performance largely based on journal impact factors.


Navigating this process can be confusing: What’s the best choice of journal for your research? Should you release your recently collected data and unpublished results onto a preprint server and wait for community comments, or write up an article and submit it to a more traditional high-IF journal?


Publishing choices tend to be very field- and career-dependent, and so one size cannot be made to fit all. As opportunities for postdoctoral positions and career advancement tend to be thin on the ground (one recent Vitae survey showed that while more than 80% of UK-based PhD students aim to continue working in academia once they complete their higher degree qualification, actually only around 5% eventually do so), we strongly recommend that you act in your own best interests when choosing a publication venue for your research. Some of the best journals in your field might not be fully OA and available to all, but a paper placed here would have a very favourable effect on your career. Time is also a key factor: As a PhD student or early-career postdoc, it’s simply not possible to wait around for months on end to see your work come out and be available for others to read. These are all considerations that must be taken into account.


We teach effective journal selection as part of our Charlesworth Knowledge courses and always recommend selecting a target before starting to write. Most journals have different target audiences and therefore different style guidelines; papers need to be written in specific ways, depending on audience. Articles for local or subject-specific journals will be quite different from articles intended for high-profile international outlets, OA or otherwise.


At Charlesworth, our pre-peer review and independent journal selection services can help you to cut down the time otherwise spent on navigating this thorny issue. We are members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).



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