Confession of an early career research scientist (ECR), most of my academic research to date has been ‘published’ in closed source journals

I have a confession to make, most of my* academic research has been ‘published’ in closed source journals both historically and currently excluding a couple of exceptions.  This is despite my own growing moral philosophy and responsibility of seeking to publish in and reviewing for journals which permit open access as a minimum.  Furthermore, ideally these open access publishers should represent value for money, particularly given the ease of ‘publication’ in the internet era, that tax payers largely foot the bill for any journal fees, be it open or otherwise, and that the majority of the academic workforce are not paid for by the private publishers who generally make large profits from this ‘free’ workforce.

Why then have I let this occur?

Initially, I feel part of this situation has been caused by inexperience.  During my PhD I, like many PhD students, might be aware of how to set up some experiments in the laboratory/have some comprehension of research methods etc., however, I was significantly less aware of the scientific publication process.  So between myself, my supervisors and collaborators we discussed where to send papers, this from memory was largely based on what we considered to be good journals both from a historical and an impact perspective (obviously heavily guided by more senior colleagues).  It wasn’t until 2012 that I made the cavalier suggestion of sending our work to the open access journal PLOS one, even in 2012, it was still, amongst some of my colleagues, and most likely still is, viewed with cynicism or at least the statement of ‘so it was not accepted in a better journal’ type response.

So herein lies problem number oneAcademics highly regard prestige, it is very difficult as a junior scientist to buck this trend and say to a fellowship/lectureship/tenure committee I didn’t publish in Nature, Science, Cell etc.  I submitted to a journal at the time that was, and most likely still is, considered by many academics as a lower tier journal due to my moral objection with the practice of particular publishers.  In most research intensive universities currently this just won’t fly.

Move on a few years later, after some time spent in industry and I find the same situation, except now the projects I work on are large in comparison to my PhD.  The larger the team the more challenging the negotiating with where to send papers (if sending them at, all due to intellectual property issues) can become.  One can try to steer people (I will upload some information related to this as it may be useful to others and link post blog ‘publication’) towards low cost open access journals but ultimately the lead authors ultimately decide.

So herein lies problem number twoIf you are not the lead author/investigator you generally don’t get to make the call on where it is finally submitted and therefore ‘published’.  As an ECR/postdoc, whatever you want to call it, at the very minimum (unless you have secured an independent fellowship, or even if you have a fellowship) you tend to be directly working with a senior colleague or someone who has spent considerable time and effort building their group and you are likely to be utilising their group’s facilities.  You also, as is the case for me, may be working across multiple disciplines, universities and indeed companies and you definitely will not be at the top of the decision making tree (commercial interests complicate this even further due to intellectual property, but that’s a story for another day).  It is therefore very difficult to challenge this authority without putting yourself in significant personal jeopardy (don’t bite the hand that feeds you type mentality) and at the end of the day you do want to see this work published and ‘out’ there as you have invested your time into this work and are also very likely to believe in its worth.

These two factors combine to help fuel the profits that publishers know they can make as scientists are dependent on them for their own survival.  Until this link is decoupled the practice of publishers making large profits on society’s knowledge will continue to occur and until scientists change their perceptions of prestige it will always be this way.

My wife (you may say I am surprised he has one) says to me ‘don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution’, not a terrible mantra (with some caveats but something that has definitely made me think) I would recommend some potential solutions:

  • If you become a supervisor to junior scientists please do promote the value of information content over journal name and prestige, it might make it more difficult to judge scientists rather than the currently crude measures of prestige but it will make science a better and fairer place.  I try to do this as best I can with the students I unofficially supervise (unofficially postdocs are not permitted to supervise PhD students due to their short term nature, but are expected to teach such students, if all that matters is publication output, then one can question whether this is fair) but it may well be to their detriment given the publish or perish society we live in.
  • The numbers of papers published by a scientist is not important, it’s the problem they solve which is more important. Speaks for itself really.
  • Please discuss the issues of openness in modern science with your colleagues, at journal club or lab meeting etc. and please challenge your superior, they are not a god (if such a thing exists) despite what they may think of themselves or status allows them to think. THEY DO NOT KNOW EVERYTHING**.

It will take time for the scientific system to change but I do believe it will, it might just take a generation or two to do so.  Too late for most of us but I hope that it is soon enough for some.

*when I say my research what I mean is research I have actively contributed experimentally, intellectually and in writing but have not necessarily lead the writing of the manuscript, some of it I have, not all of it.  I like working with others on multiple problems at the same time, sue me, or in the case of fellowships judge me for this.  It may be not that significant in the terms of other researchers with more illustrious careers but I am proud of my involvement nonetheless.

**Before someone reads this and thinks what would my current line manager think, otherwise known as a boss, of this article. I am not sure.  I am on annual leave and writing this at 12pm, as in morning.  However my line manager is generally a supportive person and I respect him as he is a very good scientist so my comments are general and are reflective for the general type of scenario that can occur.

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