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Things have been going rather well lately. Lots of science, days are getting longer, and I made an awesome curry last Thursday.  Wary of falling into complacency, I thought I’d open a (possible) can of worms. Please, be kind.


Open Access is a wonderful thing.  I appreciate this as someone working at a not-for-profit with a total journal subscription of <40 titles. If we don’t subscribe to a title, or to the full back-catalogue, it’s £12 to the British Library, and one working week if I can’t find a stashed copy on the interwebs.  I’m a classic example of the sort of person who benefits from OA publishing – a practitioner on the ground, working with local partners on applied conservation issues.  But here’s the crux: it’s not easy for me to publish OA.


Now before y’all go for the pitchforks and high tempo bluegrass, hear me out.


I’ve been thinking about this for the last number of years, and I can break down the reasons why I don’t publish more OA papers into the following:

  1. Money
  2. Audience
  3. External forces

Let’s begin.


1. Money

I’ll distinguish between the two types of journals that publish OA – those hybrid journals that let you pay for the option of OA, but will publish your article behind a paywall if you don’t pony up the cash, and those journals that are entirely OA.

Hybrid journals tend to charge significant sums of cash (thousands of your currency of choice).  The same goes for some OA-only journals.  Recently, Zen Faulkes highlighted his lab’s experience publishing many articles in OA journals.  Some journals had complete waivers, while for the majority, the fees were paid by a variety of sources, including research grants, departmental budgets, coauthors, and even apparently his own pocket (!).  I have no external grants, as my work is funded mostly through our core funding.  This core funding does not include covering page charges of any kind (OA or not), and I certainly don’t have the means to shell out for OA from my own pocket (were that it so!).  I’ve lobbied to have *some* publication fees included in our future budget, and we’ll see if that comes to pass, but for now, I am , financially speaking, stuck.

And yes, it’s true that there are several OA journals without any fees.  This recent study on journals indexed by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) found a mean fee of $964, and many with no fees at all.  While the DOAJ might seem like a nice dataset with which to work, it presents two problems.  The first is the inclusion of known predatory publishers.  Many of the publishers appear on Beall’s List.  When I reached out to DOAJ via Twitter, they told me that they are in the process of upping the standards for inclusion in the index, and that essentially all journals will have to reapply.  Which is great, but for now, the problem remains.

The second issue is one that falls under #2.


2. Audience

I’m in a fortunate position (but see #3 below) in that I have a permanent full-time job, and one that isn’t (yet) harping on Impact Factors, which means I tend to publish in journals where I think my research best fits, and had the right target audience.  If I’m writing about plastic pollution in the oceans, I’d tend towards Marine Pollution Bulletin, but if I’d rather discuss gull diet, Waterbirds is a better bet.  Last night, I scrolled through the 108 journals listed in the DOAJ under Zoology, and the 393 listed under General Biology.  Many (most?) titles were ones I had never heard of, and were of very local interest in places where I don’t work (Acta Biologica Malaysiana, anyone?).  After filtering out the predatory journals (see #1 above), and those of exceptional local interest, there wasn’t a whole lot of choice aside from the “mega-journals” like Plos One, or PeerJ.  And what few did remain often had considerable fees.  It seems counter-intuitive if I want to publish an article OA, but resort to doing so in journals so obscure, you probably haven’t heard of them (perhaps we could call these “hipster journals”?).


3. External forces

For the overwhelming majority of my papers & projects, I’m not the only one involved, and a number of other folks have a stake.  In some cases, they’re prioritizing different things than I am, such as Impact Factors.  A colleague at a large research university had her department chair tell her that anything published in a journal with an Impact Factor < 4 was a waste of time, and wouldn’t count towards departmental/funding totals.  Collaboration involves negotiation.  In some cases, as in Zen Faukles’ case, coauthors have the funds or departmental support to cover OA costs, but this isn’t that common, particularly when things start running into four-digit invoices per paper.  This is particularly true when we consider that there are few “high Impact Factor” strictly-OA journals in ecology (though most/all? operate on a hybrid system).

Colleagues looking for jobs are also concerned that publishing everything in Journal A, an example OA journal, will reflect poorly on their CV (not because it’s OA, but because of the volume of papers in a single journal).  Whether it’s right nor not, people with power and who make decisions still care about where things are published.  Heck, so are most of us.  I have yet to meet an ecologist who was as excited about their paper in Ecology Letters as they were about one in Southwestern Naturalist. I will be keenly watching (and interested in hearing about experiences) as the “Open Access generation” (roughly those with PhDs since 2010, which is when I’d guess the OA movement gained significant mainstream attention) enters the job market.


I’m well aware of the philosophical arguments for Open Access, and I agree with them.  The concept of OA publishing is a good thing.  My hang-up is in the execution.  Yes, research grants are starting to include / require OA publication as a budget item*.  But if I look at my CV, I’d have a hard time coming up with suitable OA journal equivalents (or thousands of dollars / pounds / euros / pesos / dinari).


Would I like all my papers to be Open Access? Heck yes. But can I make that happen? Not yet.


Before everyone decries my possibly ill-informed orthodox maintenance of the inadequate status quo, here are two questions to kick things off:

  1. What steps have I missed in achieving a goal of OA publishing on a limited/no budget? Are preprints the answer?
  2.  This obviously doesn’t solve the problem of limited access.  What can we do to improve access to already-published literature, particularly for those in the not-for-profit sector?


Please, be gentle.


*And yes, I’m aware of fee waivers, but I’ve had colleagues & coworkers have their waiver requests turned down on a fair number of occasions, or large fees turned into smaller-but-still-large fees.  Hybrid journals also don’t tend to offer such waivers. I don’t see this as a viable solution.