The smart scholar's publication-venue heuristics; or, how to use open access to advance your career

Oct 22 2010 Published by under Open Access

It's all about you, really. For all the high-falutin' rhetoric about accelerating discovery and taxpayer access, you the researcher just want to know how to manage your published corpus to achieve tenure and promotion.

The nice thing is that even in these early days, open access can help you do that. Based on research I've read as well as personal anecdata, here's what I suggest to any researcher who publishes in journals. (Sorry, monograph writers, for you I got nothin'.)

Something I hear a lot when I suggest publishing in a gold open-access journal is, "well, I'm not going to give up a slot in Nature or Science for open access." Well, of course you're not. I'll see you in Nature and Science, then. Oh, wait, I won't?

Right. The number of choices that stark really does approach zero. I'll never be published in Nature or Science. I love you, I love your research, but chances are you won't either. So let's back away from the black-and-white and consider the vastly more common situation of quite a few journals of acceptable prestige, some of them various degrees of open, from which you might choose.

I base my analysis in the idea, now borne out by copious amounts of research as well as ordinary common sense, that all else being equal, a work available without subscription barriers over the Web will garner more attention than one that is not, and that increased attention translates into measurable increases in citation. I also argue that individual-article metrics are already gaining importance at tenure and promotion hearings at the expense of the much-maligned journal impact factor, and I believe they will continue to do so. If you don't buy these arguments, you can probably stop reading now.

So let's say for the sake of argument that you can narrow your choices to two journals, roughly equivalent in prestige. Here's how you might choose between them:

  • If one is fully open-access and the other is subscription, take the open-access option. As Kevin Smith heard from a journal editor recently, some open-access journals are making waves. As you're hearing from me right this minute, library subscriptions are falling like wheat before the sickle. Open access maximizes the chance your article will find its reader, and its reader will not have to endure a whole lot of hassle (because really, who persists through hassle for one measly article?) to get at it.
  • If one is subscription-only and the other is hybrid... it's a toss-up. I regard hybrid journals (subscription journals that will free up individual articles on payment of a fee) with considerable suspicion. Many of them haven't revamped their user-facing interface to be clear on which articles are open and which aren't. Many of them aren't Google-crawlable, which removes one of the basic ground-level advantages of open access. Many of them don't have the basic integrity to promise to reduce subscription prices in proportion to open-access adoption. And many of them are severely overcharging. Use your best judgment.
  • If both are subscription journals, but one requires a full copyright transfer and the other only asks for a license to publish, go for the one with the license. This is called "keeping your options open." If you sign over copyright, you have only the options the publisher deigns to give you.
  • If both are subscription journals, but one allows you to place a pre/post-print in an open-access repository and the other doesn't, go for the one that does. Pay attention to the type of repository allowed, too. If there's a repository for your discipline that you know everybody reads, you're shooting yourself in the foot if you let your publisher forbid you from putting your work there. If there isn't such a repository, then check to see if your institution has one; placing a copy there will put your full-text work in Google and Google Scholar (with some pretty decent Googlejuice, if the repositories I've run are typical).
  • Put as much of your work as you legally can in open-access repositories. Again, your goal is to maximize your chances of getting your work in front of interested eyes. Yes, this means you'll have to keep track of your manuscripts. Yes, this means you'll have to read those consarned publishing agreements. From my own experience, I look you right in the eye and say: it is worth it.

One thing that never hurts: whenever you see a restrictive publishing agreement, sigh, look pained, and ask the editor, "Can you do any better than this?" The worst they will say is "No; put up or shut up." Sometimes they will say yes, and the deal you get will be considerably better. You won't endanger your publication. You will send a message that you care about your rights. There is no lose here.

Another thing that will likely help you is to put whatever you have that isn't a publishable unit on the open Web. Your thesis, perhaps. Your data. Your conference slidedecks. Your working papers. Your technical reports. Your bibliographies (via Zotero or Mendeley or the like, probably). Anything about your work that isn't a published article! The currency of academia is attention. Grab as much of it as you can.

Some analyses suggest that you should only make your best work open-access. I don't buy this argument (and a recently-published article seems to agree with me). My objection is simple: how do you know a priori what your best work is? How good are you at anticipating what your discipline or allied disciplines are going to think is important? I tell you what, I'm terrible at it—so I make everything I write open-access. I just don't know what will catch on, so I give all my work the best chance I can.

A question that does come up is how much you should pay for open access, if you're in one of the fields with author-fee gold journals. (Usual disclaimer applies: most open-access journals don't charge author-side fees!) I can't really answer that, not yet; the market hasn't shaken out. I can reiterate my suspicion of hybrid journals, and I can also remark, perhaps heartlessly, that it's a good thing you are having to ask yourself this question. Part of the reason subscription prices got so out of control is that you, researcher, were never paying them! But if you're cost-conscious, I think it will work out fine for you to eschew an author-fees journal in favor of a subscription journal that lets you archive your manuscript on the open Web, as long as you then actually do the archiving. Open is open.

Thanks for sticking with me this Open Access Week. I've had a great week, a refreshing week, a week where I feel for once that I'm not alone in this struggle. I hope you have too.


11 responses so far

  • I really like your clear and pragmatic guided walkthrough of the choices an author faces. Any chance you'll work up a "publication valuation" flowchart that we could put on next year's OA handouts?

  • Marcus says:

    There don't seem to be a ton of open access options in my area. I can think of two journals, and one isn't discipline specific. It seems quite popular to just host copies of papers on your own webpage. I've seen researchers with dozens of papers on their websites.

    • Dorothea says:

      Two problems with that:

      - Is it legal? Many of these postings aren't. In my estimation it's only a matter of time until publishers start cracking down on postings that don't meet their established guidelines, or that contravene signed publication agreements.

      - Will it stay there? What happens when the author changes institutions, retires, or has a webserver failure? Research deserves a more robust infrastructure than individual web pages.

      • Marcus says:

        -I don't think it's legal. I'm not sure if the publishers are going to make a big stink about it. I think coming down hard would just drive people more quickly to open-access.

        -Yes these are issues. Though not in the pragmatic sense for the researchers career.

        I just thought of another thing. Doesn't Mendeley allow for storage and exchange of pdfs? Are the publishers going after them?

        • Dorothea says:

          They do, and no one has yet, but I've told Mendeley repeatedly that I think they're a Big Red Target. I don't know how seriously they've taken that.

          • Marcus says:

            Well Mendeley seems to be gaining momentum. I certainly like them and think they've got a lot of potential. It'll be interesting to see how things play out.

  • An interesting post. I would however like to correct a few misconceptions on behalf of those experimenting with OA but not yet entirely convinced the model is sustainable.

    1) The vast majority of subscription and hybrid journals are crawlable by Google (at least among non-profits) - this is rarely tied to access. It is generally something the publisher wants, and they agree to allow Google to display excerpts in search results.

    2) Non-profit hybrid journals often calculate the subscription price they need to sustain business each year on the basis of money-in vs money-out accounting. Thus the 'double dipping' charge may not be quite fair - if you pay an OA fee to a hybrid journal, you may well be reducing the subscription increase the journal is forced to levy the following year.

    3) The OA citation advantage you refer to is at best contentious. The most thorough analysis yet shows there is none.

    • Dorothea says:

      I agree that it's contentious, but I disagree that the analysis you cite was thorough or even correct. Moreover, not a few research studies have come out since that date. I linked to Steve Hitchcock's bibliography intentionally; it's the best place to find the widest, most current universe of evidence and analysis.

  • 1 says:

    I wonder as to how did you get the text in the PPT that you posted at "professor like substance" (

    Did you have to type or is there any recording system that converst your voice to text?\


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