To open or not to open, that is the question - Jen-Yun Chou

14 Apr 2020

As early career researchers in animal science, publication in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal is an important aspect of our careers. There are many courses on how to improve our scientific writing, but there seems to be a lack of information about “where” to publish. It is crucial to select journals publishing subject areas relevant to our research, while taking into consideration the scope and impact factor of the journal. However, during the last decade, there have been more and more journals offering the opportunity of “open access” (OA) publication. If you are wondering about this nuance, this article hopes to give you some tips when making the choice of where to publish your valuable work.

The traditional route of publishing allows authors to publish for free, and the responsibility of paying the publishers lies with the readers. This could be institutes through subscription, or individuals who choose to pay per view of each article or pay for individual subscription as well. Authors do not have to worry about funding to pay for publication and are free to choose from the more prestigious journals which are usually managed by the major traditional publishers. However, when the authors choose to publish via this route, the copyright of the article is signed over to the publisher; in other words, you do not own your article anymore and there are restrictions on how you could distribute your article. Depending on journals or publishers, there are different terms of conditions detailing these restrictions. However, these are often overlooked which may create legal dispute in the future. For example, some journals have an “embargo period,” within which it is usually not allowed to distribute the manuscript after the reviewers’ comments (e.g. “accepted manuscript”). What the authors retain is only the right to the original submitted manuscript (“preprint”). This part is especially crucial for PhD students if you plan to include your publication in the final thesis. Since nowadays PhD theses are usually freely accessible to the public, special attention should be taken when a publication is included and to find out which version of the manuscript you can use.

Since access to the traditional publication is restricted, this also limits the audience. Especially in the field of applied science, dissemination to more readers outside academia is very important. Even within academic circles, if access to an article is improved the likelihood of being referenced also increases, which in turn improves the visibility of an article. Since the 2000’s, a new wave of advocacy for better access to scientific knowledge began to arise. Furthermore, as the advent of the Internet and the rapid development of the word processing technology on personal computers, publication has become an increasingly easier task. Unlike in the past, when journals were still largely distributed by printed copies, the publishers nowadays are responsible for a less complex process of publication which is less labour intensive. This stirred further the reform of subscription-based publication and some emerging publishers started a different business model of fully OA. In this way, the access to publications is improved, but at the same time it is the authors’ responsibility to pay for publishing (the Article Processing Charge, “APC”). This can be from hundreds to thousands of pounds depending on the journal.

This indeed brings a dilemma to early career researchers. On the one hand, it is crucial to improve the accessibility of our work, but on the other hand, without sufficient funding, it is difficult to pay the APC. Fortunately, sometimes publishers have discounts for authors from certain geographical areas or from less economically advantaged backgrounds. You should also check with your co-authors; maybe their affiliations benefit from discounts or fee waivers. Currently, some traditional publishers also offer different levels of OA, such as gold OA (immediately freely available with an APC) or green OA (under restrictions set out by the journals and/or publishers with a lower or without an APC). Some publishers also offer their reviewers discounts or waivers on the APC, so it may be beneficial to accept invitations to become a reviewer.

Choosing journals and publishers can be an art, and it surely deserves more attention especially for early career researchers in this new era of publication. Unfortunately, there are more and more uncertified publishers using OA as a bait to attract early researchers in order to ask for an APC. They can turn out to be non-peer-reviewed or just scams so should be viewed with caution. It is therefore worth investigating further what options are at hand and asking for advice from more experienced colleagues when choosing publication before you make your final decision.