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Moving the Prestige to Open-Access Publishing

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Over Indian food last night, a co-author and I discussed where to submit our paper. I told her about the memorandum released by Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council on the Library, which recommended that authors move to publishing in open access journals. We considered submitting to an open access veterinary megajournal, but immediately bumped against the prestige problem. As was well explained by Yale librarian Susan Gibbons:

So the faculty have to make this decision along the way to publish in an open access journal and give up perhaps some of the prestige that's associated with one of the more established journals. So, sometimes what you'll see is some of the junior faculty who are less inclined to publish in open access journals because they are focused on the career path and tenure track process.

The prestige problem has plagued open access from the start. Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council addressed it directly in their memorandum, calling on faculty members to “move prestige to open access.” However, the memorandum offers no direction on how this is to be accomplished.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, the U.K. government has announced that researchers receiving public funding will be required to make their papers available via open access. (There is some helpful commentary on the Nature News blog.)

Watching these events unfold, I worry that the message is “if researchers and academia don’t figure it out, the government will just make it happen.” And the idea of taking more power out of the hands of the people who perform and write up the research seems like the wrong approach to me. Isn’t part of the current crisis in academic publishing that authors don’t have control over their content?

So how to put power back in their hands? By actually moving the prestige to open access. A big name endorsement of a journal article doesn’t have to come from publication in a big name journal. It can come from faculty at a big name university. It is possible that Harvard’s name might be big enough, and since their Faculty Advisory Council stuck their noses out with their memorandum, I am going to use Harvard as an example.

I propose that Harvard faculty members organize to volunteer their editorial services in identifying and recommending the best new open access articles in their field, after those articles have been published. Get the publications out there, decide if they’re important later. Yes, this is post publication peer review, which has been suggested before, but it involves the same peers as our current system of pre publication peer review.

I imagine, for example, a publication out of Harvard’s department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. I would name it something cute like Darwin’s List, but since we are talking about Harvard here, let’s pick a more dignified name, like The Harvard Evolutionary Biology List, or HEBL for short. The HEBL would consist of short reviews of important new open access articles by faculty members; reviews might be only a few sentences long, as the inclusion in the list itself would be the important thing.

Once such the HEBL publication was on its feet, it might even get submissions from authors of published open access articles, seeking inclusion. One faculty member would serve as senior editor – an unenviable task involving herding the other faculty members into actually reviewing articles, I imagine, just as editors of journals have to do today. Junior faculty at Harvard and elsewhere could point to a mention of their open access publications in the HEBL in their resumes and expect the same prestige as if they had published the articles in big name journals.

Who’s going to actually read and review these articles? Well, the word on the street is that faculty members are withdrawing their volunteer (and paid) services as editors and peer reviewers of non-open access journals. Volunteering editorial and peer review services to a list like the HEBL would entail very similar work to what they had been doing for these journals.

How would the HEBL be published? Online only, I expect. There are existing software solutions that would work quite well. Your institution’s IT department can almost certainly help you out.

Would inclusion in the HEBL be prestigious just because we say it is? I say, why not? The big name journals are prestigious just because we say they are, and because we make hiring and promotion decisions based on publication in them. My hope is that moving prestige to lists like the HEBL would be somewhat easier to do than according prestige to open access megajournals.

The big question, of course, is: who’s going to start such a project? I wish I could, but I’m not quite faculty at a big name school yet. Such a project does require someone to commit the time and energy to trying the experiment and creating the first list. But look, faculty members, this is something you can do about what has been described as a crisis in academic publishing. And you can do it right now, without waiting for someone on a hiring or promotions committee to suddenly decide that a publication in an open access journal is just as valuable as a publication in a big name journal.

By the way, I recognize that this is probably not a new idea, and probably not feasible in the exact form I describe for one reason or another. That’s okay. I’m mostly hoping to get the discussion going in a new direction, and to plant some seeds in someone’s mind.

In the end, my co-author and I did decide to submit to an open access journal. It’s too late for this paper, but I hope that by the time I write my next one, there will be veterinary publications to provide post-publication endorsement of my article’s value. By then, I may even be junior faculty.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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