The theory and the practice: what open access publishing means to an early career researcher

Continuing our series of Open Access Week posts, today we get the views of Bryony Graham, a postdoctoral researcher at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM). She writes about the theory and the reality of publishing open access as a researcher at the beginning of her career.

As a postdoctoral research scientist who graduated just over two years ago, I’d say things are going relatively well. I’ve just about managed to convince myself that I’m no longer a student; my project is starting to shape itself into something vaguely publishable; and apparently I can even be trusted to speak at international conferences about my work. All in all: not bad.

But, like many scientists at this career stage, I’m constantly plagued by worries about how I’m going to continue to fund my existence – and my ability to stay in academic research is fundamentally determined by the journals I manage to publish my research in. Asked whether I would choose to publish my research in an open access journal, I would most certainly say yes: publicly funded research (like mine) should be publicly accessible.

In theory, it’s very simple. In practice, sadly, it isn’t quite so straightforward.

Rightly or wrongly, the competitiveness of early career researchers to gain critical grants to further their careers is heavily influenced by their publication record. The higher the impact factor of the journals which our the research is published in, the better – and sadly this choice is often at the expense of the accessibility of the findings to those outside the academic community.

This harsh reality often fuels a somewhat dwindling interest in open access publishing amongst young scientists: essentially, it just isn’t the main priority. For many, this indifference is compounded by the fact that if you work for a well-funded institute, you are blissfully unaware of the costs involved in subscribing to the aforementioned high impact elite journals, and are rarely exposed to the frustration of not being able to access a critical article that is hidden behind a paywall.

But this doesn’t mean that early career researchers should ignore open access publishing. The benefits of making research accessible to a wider community are obvious: more people can access it, read it, talk about it, distribute it, and give the appropriate individuals credit for it. We as scientists work to further knowledge of the particular area of research we’re interested in – what’s the point of doing this if people don’t know about what we’ve found? Granted, we perhaps primarily want the rest of the research community to be able to read about our latest findings, but if subscription rates for elite journals are prohibitively high even for some academic institutions, then this already actively excludes a proportion of other researchers to whom our work is directly relevant.

The movement towards greater accessibility of cutting edge scientific research has to come from multiple levels: from the journals, from the scientists, and from the readers. There will need to be changes from both the journals themselves and in the way funding bodies gauge ‘impact’ in order to make publishing open access articles both attractive and feasible to early career researchers.

But there is also a role to be played by scientists: we can’t expect interdisciplinary collaborations to evolve if non-specialists can’t read our papers; we can’t expect accurate coverage in the press if journalists can’t even access our abstracts; and we can’t expect patients to get the best possible information from doctors if the data itself isn’t available.

In my opinion, the reasons to advocate open access publishing are obvious. Unfortunately, in reality, whilst the choice between impact and accessibility remains, encouraging early career researchers to publish in open access journals will be challenging. I personally believe that the problem is not insurmountable, however – as long as the impetus for change comes from all involved.


Bryony is also an editor of the WIMM blog:

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