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University of Pittsburgh

November 6, 2014

Open Access: Keynote speaker issues plea to make research accessible

“Don’t lock up your research,” urged open-access publishing advocate Erin McKiernan in a keynote Open Access Week lecture sponsored by the University Library System (ULS).

Being successful and being open don’t have to conflict. Open-access publishing doesn’t hurt, and “in some cases it can help you raise your profile, raise your visibility and get your work out there,” she said.

“From a very young age we encourage our children to share, but when students enter academia we do everything we can to discourage it,” said McKiernan in her Oct. 22 talk, “Culture Change in Academia: Making Sharing the New Norm” at the University Club.

Young researchers are taught to compete rather than collaborate, to hold close their data and research results prior to publication and to view open-access publications as suspect, aspiring instead to publish in high-profile subscription journals such as Cell, Nature and Science, she said.

“These are tenets of a very unhealthy academic culture that needs changing,” said McKiernan, a psychology postdoc at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Changing those priorities not only requires individual commitments to making one’s own work open, but action and interaction at the institutional, regional and national levels, said McKiernan, who saw firsthand the effects of cost barriers to accessing scholarly research as a researcher affiliated with the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico.

“In some cases an electronic subscription to a single journal can cost half or the entire annual salary of an entry-level investigator at this institution. They have to choose between conducting research and educational programs and buying subscriptions,” McKiernan said.

Despite open-access mandates like one recently signed into law in Mexico, “Many, many academics in the world still do not have access to the literature they need. More importantly, I think there are many people in academia that still don’t understand this,” she said.

The problem extends beyond the laboratory, she said. “Citizens, taxpayers, patients, nonprofits, doctors — all kinds of people who don’t work in a university setting still need access to the academic scientific literature and they’re still not getting it.”

What can researchers do?

“What can I do as an individual researcher to improve access to the literature? Very simply: I can support open access,” McKiernan said.

She has pledged not to edit, review or work for closed-access journals such as Cell, Nature and Science, and to publish only in open-access journals. She also has committed to removing her name from a paper if co-authors refuse to be open and to blog her work and post preprints whenever possible.

Some colleagues see her pledge as risky. “Even if there are some inherent risks involved in this position, I really feel that if I am going to ‘make it’ in science, however you define it, it has to be on terms I can live with,” she said. “Having seen the access problem firsthand on a daily basis, locking up my work is not something I would be able to live with as a researcher.”

Career concerns

McKiernan dispelled as “myths” some of the most common career concerns: that publishing in open-access journals relegates one’s work to less-visible, lower-impact-factor journals and lower-quality peer review, closing the door to choice jobs, grants or tenure.

It’s important for early-career researchers to get their work out there and make a name for themselves. “Publishing open-access is precisely the way to do that,” McKiernan maintained. “There are a lot of studies coming out these days saying that if you publish openly … either in an open-access journal or making a copy freely available on some type of website, you will get more citations.” That holds true for data as well, she said.

Open-access doesn’t always equal a low-impact factor. “Don’t worship the impact factor,” she said, noting that where research is published says nothing about the scientific quality of the work.

“There are a lot of options even if you need to be concerned about the impact factor,” McKier-nan said. Open-access journals such as Cell Reports, Open Biology, Frontiers, the PLoS journals and BMC series journals have moderate-to-high impact factors. And Nature Communications just last month became the first Nature-branded journal to go fully open-access.

Poor-quality peer review isn’t limited to open-access publications. “We need to look at ways of improving the peer-review process, but this is a problem despite the publishing model. It’s across the board,” McKiernan said, noting that retraction rates are highest in high-impact factor journals such as Nature and Science.

A recent “sting,” in which many open-access journals accepted a fake article submitted by Science writer John Bohannon, received lots of press, but the test wasn’t scientific, given that he didn’t submit the article to subscription journals as well, she said. And several reputable open-access publishers indeed rejected the article. “Their peer review was working just fine.”

In addition, some journals publish reviewers’ criticisms and the author’s subsequent changes along with the article. “I think the more we see open-access journals use the transparent peer review model, the more we’re going to be able to dispel that myth that it’s of poor quality,” she said.

Early-career researchers in particular worry they won’t be able to get a job, a grant or tenure without publishing in traditional journals. “I think there’s evidence that the tide is changing,” said McKiernan, citing the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), launched by the American Society for Cell Biology. (

More than 500 organizations and 12,000 individuals have signed DORA, pledging, in part: not to consider journal-based metrics such as impact factor in hiring, promotion or funding decisions; to weigh more heavily the content of a paper than the title of the journal in which it is published, and to consider the value and impact of all research outputs.

The University of North Texas adopted an open-data manifesto that esteems open data as a standalone research outlet that should be valued in evaluations, and the Virginia Commonwealth University faculty senate in 2010 passed a statement that encourages promotion and tenure committees to recognize that open-access publications offer added value and greater public good. Both are indications that institutions increasingly value open-access, open-data efforts, she said.

As for grants, “It’s going to soon be the case that you have to publish openly to get a grant,” McKiernan said, citing open-access mandates by institutions including the National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and others.

“Funders care about open access and open data.”

Publishing in open-access journals doesn’t have to be expensive for authors, McKiernan said. Many institutions have open-access publisher memberships that reduce costs for their authors, or open-access publishing funds to cover author fees. Many publications don’t charge authors; others, like PeerJ, use a one-time membership fee model that allows authors to publish one article per year, provided it passes peer review.

Publishers also may waive article processing charges. “The important thing is to talk to them. You can negotiate that APC,” she said.

If none of those options works, “Self-archiving costs zero dollars,” she said.

There are subject-related repositories such as arXiv or bioRxiv or institutional archives, such as d-scholarship@Pitt. Preprints can be posted to PeerJ. Figshare allows authors to upload articles, datasets, presentations and other work, she said. Archiving also can be done on an author’s own personal website.

Publishing openly is a win-win, McKiernan said.

“What I think it means is more exposure for your work. Researchers in developing countries can see your work, practitioners can apply your findings,” she said. “Higher citation rates for you. Taxpayers get value for the research that they’ve paid for.

“… I really see no downside here for both society and you as a researcher.”


McKiernan’s presentation slides are posted at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 6