I’ve been without an academic affiliation for close to a year now, an experience that’s given me a new appreciation for open acess journals. I still receive tables of contents for Nature and Science via e-mail, but I’ve given up reading them since I can’t get past the abstract page of the articles. For now, I learn about scientific breakthroughs much the same way as the general public does: from online newspapers and magazines, blogs and Twitter.
Yet I am still writing papers and submitting them for publication – so with my new perspective I am re-considering where I send those papers. The old model, in an ideal case, went something like: (1) Choose the journal with the highest impact factor, (2) Get lucky, pull strings, whatever it takes – I don’t actually know – and get your paper accepted by your first choice journal, (3) The mainstream media picks up your story and spreads a distorted, “sexy” version of the findings. Would I like Science or Nature to publish my best work? I won’t lie. Yes, it would be nice to get that kind of exposure. Will I be devastated if they don’t? No. Should publication in these journals be a prerequisite to finding a tenure-track job? Absolutely not. Is there a better way of defining the impact of your research? Definitely. Start with the Alt-Metrics Manifesto if you don’t believe me.
Here’s what I notice about papers written for open access journals: They are so very readable. The authors (and editors) consider their expanded audience. Look at any paper in a PLoS journal and you will see: What they did, how they did it, and why, all clearly stated at the top of the paper. The typical Science or Nature paper is dense with jargon and light on explanation, because the authors assume readers will be members of the field and that everyone else will read the press release. The situation has nominally improved with the introduction of (optional) supplementary electronic material, but overall the format provides lots of incentive for overstating conclusions and under-reporting evidence.
While I wait for an open access publishing nirvana, I take heart in the fact that peer review is no longer limited to two or three researchers chosen by an editor who may or may not know anything about the science at hand. The recent arsenic-eating-bacteria story was a great reminder that, more and more, peer review is happening immediately and publicly. No longer do we have to wait a year for a new paper, or for an editor-approved letter of rebuttal. Even more exciting in this case, the mainstream media picked up on the backlash and reported it. In this paradigm, it doesn’t matter so much where I publish a paper, just that I get it out there. The quality will be reflected in the post-publication reactions, rather than pre-determined by the anonymous few.