If you believe the press, scientists are desperate to publish open access. Is this really true? Turning our scientific method onto ourselves and our peers, let’s see what kind of actual data there is. Every 3 years Ithaka SR (a consulting firm for non-profits) publishes a survey of US faculty for attitudes and behaviors that can help university libraries serve their faculty (https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/2018-us-faculty-survey/). The whole survey is well worth a read. There are interesting questions about social media, data storage, attitudes towards books, etc. But I want to home on their Figure 31 which summarizes data about what kind of journals faculty want to publish in.
Figure 31 from the report is reproduced here. The associated question is: “When it comes to influencing your decisions about journals in which to publish an article of yours, how important to you is each of the following characteristics of an academic journal?” Answers are “Percent of respondents who indicated that each of these characteristics is highly important.”
To me this gives some very clear results that rings largely true to me. To a good approximation faculty priorities when choosing journals are:
1) Publish in a journal that is widely read by my direct colleagues and peers simultaneously with being a high reputation (high impact journal). This is a high priority for 80% of faculty.
2) Publish for free (no page charges or OA APC charges). This is a high priority for ~70% of faculty.
3) Publish in a journal that is a “good citizen” in areas like open access (freely available to read), accessible to developing nation scientists, good long term archive policies, etc. This is important to about 30-40% of the faculty (and slightly more important to senior faculty than junior).
I’ve left a few out like publishing in an exclusive journal (not a high priority per se, seemingly just a residual from publishing in a high impact factor journal) and quick time to publication.
But this rings completely true to me. Scientists publish almost exclusively to influence their colleagues (i.e. ultimately the direction of the field) and to enhance their career. And they are working with fixed resources and finite budgets. Scientists are not unaltruistic (30-40% consider the more altruistic factors as a high priority). But scientists have a job to do.
But what do we make of the fact that free to publish came in 4th with ~70% while free to read (open access) came in 8th with about 35%. First it seems likely that there is some magical thinking going on. At least some fraction of respondents (70%+35%>100%) want their papers to be free to publish AND free to read. Well who wouldn’t! The problem is that this is entirely unrealistic. Every time I hear somebody talk about “platinum OA” (where some 3rd party pays the OA publishing charges) I wonder who exactly this magical 3rd party is and where they get their money from.
But this data also provides a pretty direct answer to how badly authors want OA. Twice as many authors consider free to publish as a top priority as do those who consider free to read as a top priority. There may be an overlapping group who is engaging in magical thinking. But likely the majority of both those groups are probably principled rational people who would like to see their model prevail. But there is a clear preponderance who value free to publish over free to read.
Somewhat contradicting that result is this interesting study by Shaun Yon-Seng Khoo (https://www.liberquarterly.eu/article/10.18352/lq.10280/). It shows a couple of things. First journals that flip and go from free to publish to OA pay to publish have not seen a decline in the number of submissions. This suggests that at the moment plenty of authors are happy with the pay-to-publish OA APC model (although this doesn’t contradict the previous survey that shows that free to publish is even more popular; about 7-11% are Gold or Hybrid OA and another 13-16% ambiguous Bronze OA according to Piwowar et al 2018, which means at 20-25% of papers published by a pay-to-publish model OA this is less than the 35% who said free to read is a high priority). But this article also has some scary results. The cost to publish OA (i.e article publishing charges or APC) is showing hyperinflation, increasing at 3x the rate of inflation. And indeed higher APC charges led to HIGHER submission rates. It is clear that OA is going to be subject to the same dysfunctional prestige or premium goods market rules that earlier models have been subject to as well. If all journals are gold OA, this is only going to result in the rich having easier access to prestigious journals. Notions of all OA APC being $500 or less appears not to reckon with how much authors with grants are willing to pay for prestige/visibility (and also appears not to reckon with the actual costs of publishing journal articles at their current quality levels, but that is a post for a future day).
One important caveat is that the first study is US faculty only. And I continue to observe real differences in attitudes towards OA between Europe and North America. So that needs to be remembered in the mix.
Another place where I am missing data is there is increasing talk about squeezing excess profits out of publishing and supporting society journals (a consideration that I mentioned a long time ago). I am not aware of any hard data on this.But the aforementioned study by Khoo on APC charge effects on submissions hints against this. And the first impact factor of the new journal Nature Ecology and Evolution (very high) suggests that either people are pursuing high impact or free to publish or both well above pursuing not-for-profit society journals (they’re also not prioritizing readable by colleagues – many libraries in North America have not yet purchased a subscription to NEE including my own university).
Putting all of this data together, one could speculatively (and cynically?) argue that the first study is a self-reported study of priorities and thus not completely accurate. Perhaps the real priority list of authors is:
- Publish in the highest impact factor I can
- Publish in journals my colleagues read
- Publish cheaply
- Be altruistic (which includes free to read among the mix).
But the one thing I feel very strongly about is this discussion of publishing needs and desires has to start being data driven and not just based on who shouts loudest over social media. Please point to data if you can in your comments.
What do you think? Are authors accurate self-reporters of their priorities? Or does where they publish tell us more? Is it really impact factor and prestige over everything? Is free to publish really preferred by a clear majority over free to read? Is there anything more than lip service to supporting society journals? Please give me your fact informed opinions!