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Get up to speed with Open Research and Plan S: What’s best for your career?

We’ve talked about the concepts of Open Research and Plan S in an earlier article in this series: the basic idea that research results, including the publications that result, should be freely available for all to see, download, read, and cite. On the face of it, this seems like a very good idea and, indeed, surveys conducted so far suggest that most researchers around the world are very supportive of this idea: they want their publications to be available to everyone once peer reviewed and accepted by a journal. Open Access (OA).

So, imagine: you’ve just completed a piece of work, gathered some data and results, and are about to start the write-up process. Which target journal should you choose? (remember that we recommend that you should choose a target journal for your work before you start to write, one of the ‘three things you need to know’ before you start to write). It’s time to select a decent journal, one with a high impact factor, reach and reputation with your community.

Here’s the problem: although, as we’ve discussed, most researchers want their papers to appear in OA outlets, it’s not always the case that high impact factors journals are OA. Because of the way that the academic publishing industry has evolved over the years, many journals continued to be published based on the business model that people, readers, must pay to access content. Many high IF journals lie behind ‘paywalls’ and therefore their content is not available to all, free-of-charge and open. Consider top journals like Nature and Science: everyone would love to get their papers published in these outlets, but if they do, it’s not necessarily the case that all researchers, all over the world, will be able to read and access published content. It will depends on the kind of subscription package you’ve got, or your institution has paid for. Or individuals have to pay a one-off fee to access your work.

This is the dilemma often faced by researchers; they want their work to be fully OA and their funding agency want this too (like Plan S, for example, as discussed in our previous articles), but the journals available are sub-optimal. Would you turn down the chance to publish a paper in Nature even if the output was not fully OA? Probably not.

Journals and publishing companies have addressed this issue by charging so-called article processing charges (APCs). These are common to many journals, including a number of well-known and well-respected OA series, like Frontiers and PLoS. You submit a paper, it gets peer-reviewed, hopefully accepted, and then you pay a fee before publication, the APC. This ensures that your work is fully OA and can be downloaded by anyone from the journal site. Two problems: there’s a charge (and not everyone has the money) and, often, the IFs of these OA journals are just not as high as those that characterise other, more traditional outlets like the older society journals. One good example is The Lancet: very very popular with doctors and medical researchers (one contact in Beijing told me recently that he dreamt about publishing in The Lancet: just one paper there and he’d be sure to be promoted at his University). There’s a balanced to be faced up to in your publishing career: OA journals are not necessarily the best, or most respected.

What should you do? Our advice is to make a list of 10 or 15 journals in your field, places where you’d love to see your research published, and then rank them according to their IFs. Then always try to preferentially submit your work to outlets with higher IFs. This is a trick that we were taught when we were PhD students in the UK. You’ll face rejection, of course; but this is one constant of academic life. Being a researcher, working at a University, you’ll face more rejection that perhaps any other career, with the exception of working in sales. Papers. Grants. Job applications. Its how you react to rejection that matters in academia: always take the positives from peer review of your papers and grants, build on the good things that people say about your work, or suggestions for improvement. Re-work, re-submit and you’ll eventually get those papers in good, high IF journals. Just perhaps not your first choice of Nature and Science! One of the keys to success as an international researcher is confidence: belief that your work is good, high-quality, and deserves to appear in a high ranking journal. You’ll get there.

It’s also well worth bearing in mind that if you chose to publish a paper in a journal that is not fully OA then you’ll almost certainly not be allowed to then post a PDF on either your own website or on an academic networking site, like ResearchGate or Journals, academic publishers, will retain copyright (you’ll have signed a form to this effect when you first submitted your paper) because they use content, your article, to make money. This is the business model for standard, traditional non-OA academic publishing.

One of the most common questions we get asked at our paper-writing workshops is ‘how can I get my article into a good journal but without having to pay?’. There’s no good answer to this question: high IF journals are often behind paywalls, as we’ve discussed, and there’s very often an APC to pay to publish in a full OA journal. This is a real issue for academic authors, especially in countries were perhaps less money is available for publishing charges.

There is also another side to this issue: predatory journals. You must be very careful with the journals you select as the rush towards OA around the world has led to a big rise in the number of publishers out there who are just interested in getting their hands on your money. A few minutes searching online will be enough to convince yourself that many, many journals out there are advertising and searching for papers: what sort of journals are they? Why pay for OA if there’s no peer review and the journal your chosen has no listing in one of the standard compliations, like ISI, Scopus, or PubMed. It’s well worth taking the time to research the journal you’ve chosen as an outlet for your work: quick publication might not be worth it, at the end of the day.

Finding a balance between OA publishing and doing what’s best for your career can be difficult in today’s confusing world: we see hundreds of new academic journals launched each year, but how good are they? Are they listed in academic databases? Do they have ISSN numbers? Do their papers carry document identification (DOI) numbers? What are you actually getting for your money? If you are confused, you can always get in touch with one of our team for help and advice with journal selection. We also have a range of online courses and other materials to help you with tricky, problematic issues like which journal to select for your next academic paper.