About 20% of journal articles published in the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities are open-access, meaning that only about 1 out of every 5 articles are immediately or eventually accessible online without paying an expensive journal subscription fee. And although the open-access movement began in the early 1990s, survey studies find that a majority of researchers still consider publishing at open-access journals as posing a risk to earning tenure and as potentially jeopardizing their chances at winning research grants. As these findings suggest, there are not only financial and technological hurdles to making most scholarship open-access, there are also perceptual and cultural barriers.
Last week, I noted several of the major benefits to scholarship and to individual researchers that come with open-access and open-review publishing (i.e. using online tools to increase the number and diversity of experts judging submitted work.) Somewhat ironically my own field, communication, has been relatively slow in recognizing these advantages and in accepting an open-access and open-review model. A few notable exceptions exist, but overall, communication as a discipline remains locked within a model of subscription publishing with research growing ever more specialized and esoteric, even as universities seek to become more interdisciplinary and to communicate about the relevance of scholarship to real-world problems, economic development, and societal progress.
Over the next month, I am going to be exploring the advantages of open-access publishing in a series of posts, focusing specifically on the fields I know best, communication and political science. Not only do these fields serve as valuable case studies for highlighting the cultural and financial barriers to moving to an open-access model, but they also offer the opportunity to spotlight the avant-garde and innovators who are leading the shift to open-access journals. Today, I start by reflecting on my own recent experience with open access publishing.
A study I published with Ed Maibach and several colleagues at BMC Public Health this summer jump-started my focus on the benefits of open-access publishing. The journal is part of the Biomedical Consortium of journals, a UK equivalent to the Public Library of Science (PLOS) initiative.
The study was funded by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of their Health Policy Investigators program and evaluates strategies for communicating about the health risks of climate change. The goal of our project is to reach a broad, interdisciplinary audience of researchers in public health, communication, policy, and environmental science, as well as public health professionals, journalists, communication professionals, and policy decision-makers. An existing journal in communication, with subscription restriction and a relatively narrow disciplinary focus and readership, would not have enabled this reach.
The Benefits of Open-Access Publishing
One of the key advantages of open-access publishing is that research is far more likely to become part of online and face-to-face discussions among interested and relevant publics. Not only does this sponsor wider attention and impact, but it turns academic publishing into a two-way conversation, providing the opportunity for valuable feedback from readers. In many ways, open-access publishing enables an almost immediate “second-round of review,” crowd-sourcing insight, critiques, and follow-up suggestions for research.
Consider for example, that upon publication at BMC Publish Health, I was able to blog about the open-access article including further details along with photos of our in depth interviews with subjects. For the past two months, the article has been one of the most highly accessed articles at the journal.
Then a really interesting thing happened. Among the feedback generated, we received an email from a public health professional in California with a very valuable insight about a follow-up to our research approach. This was not someone we would have been able to engage otherwise and none of the reviewers on the paper caught this either. We should have thought of the suggestion ourselves, since its something we often teach our students, but overlooked it.
No study is perfect and these kinds of insights and improvements to a study are supposed to be provided by reviewers. If they can’t be addressed in a study and are not fatal to the overall value of the findings, then they can be highlighted by authors as questions to consider in future research. But as is the case in most reviewing, even the best expert referees are human, prone to errors, and don’t always have the time (or motivation) to carefully consider every element of a paper. In open-access and open-review, if designed carefully, engaging the minds of many relevant experts can be better than gaining feedback from just 2 or 3.
Catalyzing the Move to Open-Access
Over the summer, I’ve been thinking about strategies for promoting open-access and peer-review in the field of communication and the social sciences more generally, and talking to a lot of people about the prospects. At Age of Engagement, this conversation will continue.
To start, however, here are a few preliminary thoughts.
a) First, an online journal has to be of the highest quality, recruiting the very best as editors and as editorial board members, and featuring very strong design qualities that speak to its excellence. Senior people need to step forward nationally as leaders serving as editors and being among the first to publish at the journal. These senior people also need to recruit as editorial members and submitting authors the young innovators among their field. A university or department can take the lead in launching a journal but it needs eventually the full force of the national and international scholarly and creative community behind it.
b) The most important element to ensure quality is to have a large enough community of interdisciplinary experts, professionals, and engaged lay users. Besides gaining the support of the wider field or fields, different opinion-leader strategies can be used to facilitate wider adoption and acceptance. A journal, apart from its scholarly content, should also serve as an information and news portal, providing original content in the form of online only perspectives from scholars and Chronicle of Higher Education-style news about trends and research in the field, either specifically produced for the site and/or aggregated.
I am going to be talking about these specific strategies in a follow-up post, strategies that take a top-down approach to catalyzing bottom up user engagement, feedback, and diverse reach.
c) At a more basic level, articles need to appear in online, hyperlinked format but also be formatted as standard-looking downloadable PDF journal articles (though this will vary by fields and obviously online captures graphics and videos that a PDF cannot.) Given, the importance of tracking citation impact and other indicators of scholarly relevance, the journal also needs to be included in Web of Science and other citation databases.
d) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, here needs to be money to support the open-access model. At BMC and PLoS, authors pay a fee, budgeted usually as part of their supporting research grant, to underwrite the journal. Instead of the traditional subscription model where journals sell content, open-access journals would become more like public media. Funded by author fees, university and professional society support, and by foundations, in the open-access model, journals would evolve into direct disseminators of knowledge, serve as conveners of discussion, and bridge rich networks of online users.
Requiring author fees is easier in the sciences or public health where most research is grant supported and something as a field we could budget for as part of any grants we are working on. However, the great majority of scholarly work in communication and related fields are not grant supported. There is an existing model for and source of funding, however. Most universities provide small grants of $1,000-$2,000 for scholars to travel to professional society meetings. What if scholars had the option to use this money instead to pay fees that support publication at open access journals?
What do readers think? Is there a need for the social sciences to move stronger in the direction of open-access and review? Do you think these strategies will be effective? What other strategies would you propose?
Maibach, E., Nisbet, M., Baldwin, P., Akerlof, K., & Diao, G. (2010). Reframing climate change as a public health issue: an exploratory study of public reactions BMC Public Health, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-10-299