Give the pioneers a chance – Open access and closing the reputational gap for early career scientists

Within the last 3 years I had the chance to talk to many researchers, young scientists, and students in different areas of science. I liked very much to talk to this specific audience as for example at the 25th European Students’ Conference 2014 or 2015 in Berlin where I had been invited to organize an afternoon workshop about perspectives of scientific publishing with about 100 participants – you may find the slides of my presentation here. Or last summer in a panel discussion with medical students in Leipzig. They ask me after my introductory talk, why they should continue to publish their work in that old-fashioned way which obviously appeared as outdated. It was terrific to spend almost hours with so many students which were keen to find out more about the future development of scholarly communication.

Why is this so interesting to discuss with young researchers about scientific communication? When I recently attended a panel discussion on scholarly publishing, I realized that a significant part of the audience were Ph.D. students or post-docs. When one of the speakers talked about new opportunities in Open Access publishing, a very intensive discussion began. Almost all young scientists in the audience were excited and motivated by the principles and vision behind Open Access. They said they would like to change the current publishing system and participate in a more open conversation about their research with peers. I was thrilled because that is what we are trying to develop on the ScienceOpen platform.

However, “If I publish my work Open Access, I will have difficulties in my future career, I am afraid, because I need the highest Impact Factor (IF) possible” said one of the young scholars, dampening the enthusiasm, and in the end most of his colleagues agreed.

 “If I publish my work Open Access, I will have difficulties in my future career, I am afraid, because I need the highest Impact Factor (IF) possible.”

But is this a real threat for those parts of the scientific community that will have the most important impact on the future of academia? To find out more about the perspectives of grad students and junior researchers at institutions or universities, I tried to find arguments against active participation in Open Access publishing. Although they would like to have a public discussion about their science with peers, almost everyone I talked to stressed that they have been instructed by their academic senior advisor to aim for a high-IF journal to publish their work. And most young scientists had the impression that there are relatively few quality Open Access journals and even many of these have a low IF, if any. Therefore I next asked some of their supervisors and professors for their thoughts. Amazingly, many of them emphasized that their graduate students and junior researchers themselves insisted on publishing in a “Champions League” journal, or at least, in a “Premiere League” journal with a considerably high IF. Who was right? I believe that we don’t need to answer this question in order to understand why young researchers feel so frightened about Open Access publishing opportunities.

Let’s summarize the major reasons that motivate a researcher to publish her/his work:

(A) To record and archive results.
(B) To share new findings with colleagues.
(C) To receive feedback from experts / peers.
(D) To get recognition by the scientific community.
(E) To report results to the public, funding bodies, and others.

Next, let us analyze which reasons for publishing are more relevant to young researchers in comparison with others. Reporting results (E) is more formal reason which is required when one has received a financial contribution by funding organizations. As for archiving (A), it is not a particular motivation for junior scientists. By contrast, sharing with colleagues (B) may have more significance for those groups that have just started to build up their academic network. We all agree that younger scientists must not only actively promote themselves by sharing new results of their work, but also to intensify dialogue with their peers. They therefore also depend on feedback from experts and peers (C) much more than a senior researcher who has established his or her expertise across decades. Both (B) and (C) will hopefully result in recognition from the scientific community (D), which has long been considered the conditio sine qua non in academia for all junior researchers if they want to achieve a successful academic career. Everyone I talked to agreed and most of my scholarly colleagues confirmed that this list appeared to be consistent and complete in describing the relevance of publishing for young researchers.

But where are the Impact Factors in my list? Where are big journal brands?

Until now, recognition has been measured by citations. Today, with a more and more frequent usage of social networks, we should broaden our view and associate credit for scientific work also with mentions, likes, or retweets. The latter attributes of modern communication in social networks is an immediate and uniquely fast way to provide and earn credits, also in scholarly publishing. There are more and more examples where an excellent paper got credited within minutes after it had been posted – open access. Citations are important, but it is the article and the individuals who authored that work which should get credited. And there is growing evidence that papers published Open Access are read and ultimately cited more often. Impact factor was a “toxic influence” on science, as Randy Shekman, Nobel laureate in Medicine 2013 recently stated, that markets only an exclusive journal brand rather than measuring scientific impact.

“Impact factor was a “toxic influence” on science.”

Finally, we do not need big journal brands or an Impact Factor for evaluating the relevance and quality of research. Neither for senior scientists, nor for young researchers. The latter group, however, has a significant intrinsic advantage: they are much more accustomed to communicating with social media tools. If they continue to use these when starting their academic career, they will strongly influence traditional, old-fashioned ways of crediting academic research. My conclusion can therefore be considered as an invitation to the younger generation of researchers: Substitute pay-walled journals with new open science technologies to publicly publish your scientific results; continue to use social network tools to communicate about and discuss recent research with others; and adopt alternative metrics to measure scientific relevance in addition to classical citation. It will be your generation in a decade from now that will craft the careers of other young researchers. Nobody else. Therefore you should be not afraid of losing credit when publishing Open Access or submitting your next paper to an alternative open science platform. The more people like you who follow that path of modern scholarly publishing, the less emphasis will be put on classical incentives for academic evaluation. Open Access and active communication about new results in science by social media and open science platforms such as ScienceOpen can increase both usage and impact for your work.

“We do not need big journal brands or an Impact Factor for evaluating the relevance and quality of research.”

And my request to senior scientists who are presently judging the quality of the younger generation of researchers: challenge yourself to look at their social networking record and their willingness to shape the new measures of recognition. And do not forget: Access is not a sufficient condition for citation, but it is a necessary one. Open Access dramatically increases the number of potential users of any given article by adding those users who would otherwise have been unable to access it, as Stevan Harnad and Tim Brody demonstrated already 10 years ago. Give the pioneers a chance – it’s our next generation for future research!

“Give the pioneers a chance – it’s our next generation for future research.”

Finally, what’s your opinion? Where do ECR have to publish today to make sure that they will have a chance to get tenure? Or do you think that publishing outside the fancy, high-IF journals will ruin your career? Please let us know your feedback and reply to this post, or drop a note on Twitter @SciPubLab, Thank you!


Alexander Grossmann is Physicist and Professor of Publishing Management at HTWK University of Applied Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. After his PhD and PostDoc in Aachen and Munich at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, respectively, he worked as Associate Professor of Physics in Tuebingen. In 2001 he accepted a management position in academic publishing industry. After 12 years as Publishing Director and Vice President Publishing at Wiley, Springer and De Gruyter, Alexander founded 2013 with a partner from the U.S. the open science network ScienceOpen.

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This blog post has been made public under a creative commons CC-BY 4.0 licence which allows free usage, reuse and open sharing for any purpose if the author has been credited.

Image Credit: (c) Alexander Grossmann CC-BY 4.0

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