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Open access anxiety in the publish or perish world

I gave research rounds at a university hospital yesterday on a topic that seems to simultaneously inspire and provoke: open access publishing.

My sense—having socialized as a medical academic before defecting to the editorial world—is that one thing alone matters: Publish or Perish. (Or as my former colleague Joel Ray says, “PubMed-ish or perish.”). This will come as no surprise to anyone in the academic health sciences. Publishing is the chief currency in this universe, the main source of validation of one’s research, and often the key indicator of academic success. Promotion and tenure committees (and colleagues, chairs, deans) value peer-reviewed publications above all;…that is, regrettably, even above clinical performance or community service.

That “publish or perish” (PorP) generates perverse incentives and sometimes bad publication behaviour is a topic for another day.

But as the broader scientific landscape is shifting toward the importance of open access to the literature, the traditions of medical publishing—which prop up PorP—persist: the “top five” hierarchy, the importance of the impact factor, the codified order of authorship etcetera. To succeed in medical academia means to play by these rules, but these rules work to eclipse an interest in disseminating one’s work widely, the central benefit of open access (OA).

They do so partly because traditional medical publishers (except for the BMJ) do not as of yet provide OA. But these rules also create anxiety among medical academics because of some common misconceptions about open access publishing: OA publications don’t use peer review, OA journals are of lesser quality and reputation, authors “buy” their OA publications, and anyone can publish in an OA journal.

Debunking these misconceptions surely is one of the key challenges to the open access movement in medicine.

So after a lively discussion with colleagues during research rounds I was grateful this morning to receive this week’s edition of Peter Suber’s outstanding newsletter. In it he takes on this idea that OA cannot equate with prestige.

Peter’s treatise is long but well worth reading. I was particularly interested in the following arguments that have relevance to publishing in medicine:

On incentives:
– As OA proponents we have to “start working with the existing system of incentives”…. and that “researchers are not so preoccupied by their research that they can’t be induced to pay attention to relevant differences among journals, or at least the differences which universities make relevant. This gives hope to a strategy to get faculty to pay attention to access issues.” [my emphasis]

On prestige:
– “If most OA journals are lower in prestige than [traditional] journals, it’s not because they are OA. A large [part] of the explanation is that they are newer and younger” … “There is already a growing number of high-prestige OA journals.”

(OA journals like PLoS Medicine, whose impact factors have consistently put it among the top 5 of general medical journals and whose influence means its articles are regularly cited in media and policy discussions).

On promotion and tenure reviews:
– “Universities tend to use journal prestige and impact as surrogates for quality. The excuses for doing so are getting thin” … “If you’ve ever had to consider a candidate for hiring, promotion, or tenure, you know that it’s much easier to tell whether she has published in high-impact or high-prestige journals than to tell whether her articles are actually good.” … “When we want to assess the quality of articles or people, and not the citation impact of journals, then we need measurements that are more nuanced, more focused on the salient variables, more fair to the variety of scholarly resources, more comprehensive, more timely, and with luck more automated and fully OA.”

What I take from this is that we need in medical academia to care more about quality than prestige: the quality of our research, of our publication and dissemination goals, of the impact of our work, and of our hiring and promotion decisions. So instead of “Publish or Perish,” perhaps our mantra ought to be “Quality or Quit.”

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