What do early-career researchers think about open access?

Inside eLife

A guest post by Divykriti Chopra, Leonid Schneider, Clara Martinez Perez, Ashish Malik and Prateek Mahalwar.

Selecting a journal to submit a manuscript to is an important decision for any researcher. To find out the factors that influence this decision for early-career researchers, we conducted a survey of PhD students and postdocs at Max Planck Institutes across Germany. The respondents worked in a variety of fields including biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematics and the social sciences. As advocates of open access (OA), we also wanted to find out how much early-career researchers knew about this topic. A total of 314 PhD students and postdocs completed the survey, and some of the results are discussed in this article.

Regarding open access, 17% of respondents said that they understood it well, with another 39% saying that they had some knowledge of it, compared with 11% who weren't sure and 3% who were not aware of it: some 30% of the PhD students and postdocs did not answer this question ( Figure 1).

How well are you informed about open access?
Figure 1. Responses to the question: How well are you informed about Open Access?

Respondents were then asked to rate how 13 different factors influenced their decision of which journal to publish their work in. "Relevance for my community" was the most popular answer (as determined by the number of respondents who ranked it "extremely important"), followed by "for academic promotion", "prestige/perceived quality" and "impact factor". "Speed of publication" and "open access" came at the bottom of the list ( Figure 2). This came as a surprise to us as the Max Planck Society supports open access and covers OA publication costs. Worries about the cost of publishing in gold or hybrid OA journals seemed to be important for some respondents, despite the publication fees of true OA journals being largely comparable to the page and colour figure charges levied by subscription journals ( Björk and Solomon, 2012).

What factors are important to you when selecting a journal to publish in?
Figure 2. Answers to the question: What factors are important to you when selecting a journal to publish in?

We also asked "who benefits from open access?" and “why is OA beneficial?”. Both the scientific audience and the general public scored higher than authors ( Figure 3a). However only about 25% of respondents felt that they received any individual benefits on publishing in OA journals ( Figure 3b).This surprised us because getting your paper cited is a universal priority for all researchers, and several studies have shown that OA provides a positive citation advantage across all fields ( Swan, 2010; Gaulé and Maystre, 2011; Gargouri et al. 2010). Moreover, OA articles are downloaded more often and reach a broader audience ( Davis, 2011; The Open Citation Project, 2012; Davis and Walters, 2011).

Who benefits from open access?
Figure 3a. Answers to the question: In your opinion, who benefits from open access?
Why is open access beneficial?
Figure 3b. Answers to the question: In your opinion, why is open access beneficial?

Given the results of our survey, there is undoubtedly still plenty of work for the OA community to do to promote the benefits of open access to early-career researchers. With organizations as diverse as the European Union and the Gates Foundation committed to open access, and with leading publishing houses setting up more and more OA journals, it is high time that early-career researchers are made aware of the advantages of OA.

And there is more to the "open movement" than just open access. The next OpenCon meeting, for example, will have three focuses: open access, open education and open data. The aim of the open education movement—which is supported by the EU Commission—is to make educational resources freely available for the benefit of all learners, teachers and researchers. The aim of the open data movement is to make the archived datasets from all publicly funded research projects freely available for automated access; this was the subject of an OECD declaration more than a decade ago. OpenCon 2015 will take place in Brussels in November.

The Max Planck Digital Library and Max Planck PhDnet have set up an Open Access Ambassadors initiative to increase support for OA within the community of early-career researchers at Max Planck Institutes and German universities. The ambassadors are early-career researchers who are being trained to become local advocates for OA and to spread the message in their institutes. This training covers topics like scientific publishing, copyright, scholarly reputation mechanisms and open science. A two-day conference and a one-day workshop have also been organized as part of this initiative.

We are in the midst of a major transformation in scientific publishing. Established scientists may prefer to stick with conventional subscription-based journals and steer clear of novel concepts such as OA, so it is up to early-career researchers like ourselves to ensure the success of OA in scientific publishing. However, we need support and encouragement from established researchers. OA is not perfect—so-called predatory journals remain a problem—but the ultimate goal of making the results of research freely available around the world is one that is worth fighting for.

At the end of the day, why do you publish the results of your research? Do you want to hold it up as a trophy, gleaming in the light but unreachable? Or do you publish it to help scientists everywhere to understand each other’s work better? To us the answer seems obvious.

Author Affiliations

Divykriti Chopra: Cologne University and Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne, Germany.

Leonid Schneider: Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz, Germany (now a science journalist with Laborjournal).

Clara Martinez Perez: Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen, Germany.

Ashish Malik: Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany.

Prateek Mahalwar: Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tuebingen, Germany.