This is a guest post by Bastien Castagneyrol. This is an issue I’ve thought about (as have others), and like Bastien, I don’t quite know what action to take. I like Bastien’s climbing metaphor. In a related one, the journey from subscriber-pays paywall to author-pays-open-access crosses a very rugged landscape, with crevasses both obvious and hidden.
Disclosure from Bastien: what follows is not exhaustive and could be much better documented. It reflects my feelings, not my knowledge (although my feelings are partly nurtured with some knowledge). I’m trying here to ask a really genuine question.
The climbing metaphor
My academic career is a rocky cliff. As a not-senior-yet-but-not-junior-anymore researcher, I am supposed to climb in lead. The top of the cliff is quite far away, but luckily I have a strong harness and a solid rope to hold me. I have a well secured position. For those who ever enjoyed rock climbing, my situation looks something like the drawing above (I am the “established” researcher).
I could keep hanging from this comfortable position. Or I may want to climb further up, because discovering new horizons is exciting, because it will help me get more lab facilities, and, let’s be honest, because the salary will be better too. But to climb further, I absolutely need someone down the cliff to hold the rope. PhD students. Students do a great job in the field, in the lab, and they can do magic stuff with R. Over the last few years, I’ve become interested in some research areas I would have never considered if I had not been pushed that way by “my” students.
Students not only secure my own position, they help me climb further up. But as the rope stretches, I cannot climb any more if the folks at the other end do not join me. Here comes the concern, and here the climbing metaphor (almost) stops. As a tutor/adviser/supervisor/mentor, I must help students climb too. How can I do that?
Students need papers
Scientific papers in our academic world are currencies. Having one 50 € note in my wallet will give me more opportunities than having one 5 € one. Likewise, a common belief is that I will have more career opportunities with my name in a good position in top-rank journals (at least well established journals in my field).
It may not be true, and it should not (among other things, published papers should not be the only currency), but let’s assume that young researchers will get more recognition – and greater chances to pursue their academic careers – if they have a bunch of papers published in the so-called “good journals”.
Real people outside academia also want to read scientific papers
There is a growing concern in the scientific community about open science. Because public academic research is, by and large, paid for by citizens, it is legitimate that those who pay can access to what they paid for. People who want to be able to read scientific papers, however, find that they have traditionally been hidden behind paywalls. (There are many other reasons why we – as members of the scientific community – may want to break paywalls down, but this is not what I want to discuss here.)
Several propositions have been made to open science and make scientific papers freely accessible to anybody. And it will shortly become mandatory (at least in Europe) to make papers from publicly funded research open access. But then the question is: who pays? Research and knowledge are not free. Even the internet is not free, and editing and archiving papers also has a cost. So, again, who pays?
If the reader does not pay to read (or if their institution doesn’t pay for them), then the authors have to pay to make their papers accessible for free. Actually, they pay with their grants. If it comes from a public science funding agency, then to be able to read such an open access paper, citizens paid the salary of the people who did the research and of course the fees for making the paper open access (not to talk about the cost of sensors, reactants, fences, students’ grants, travel, or whatever was needed to do the research). And the publisher gets the open-access fee.
This author-pays model costs a lot, but it makes it possible to make scientific papers “gold open access” while still publishing in famous journals. Does it mean that we pay for the fame? Kind of. But recall that,for young or still-young-but-older researchers, this kind of fame also means career opportunities.
Can students afford open science?
Open science can be completely free*. A bunch of researchers recently launched the PCI initiative. PCI stands for “Peer Community In…” – for instance, PCI in Ecology. The principle is simple and seductive. Very briefly:
1 – you are proud of your paper
2 – you upload it on a (free) open archive (for instance, Biorxiv)
3 – from Biorxiv it goes to PCI
4 – your paper is handled by recommenders and then reviewed, as it would be in any other journal
5 – you can make changes to your paper following recommendations
6 – if the recommender deems the work to be valid, your paper receives its RECOMMENDED sticker
(7 – you can still send your recommended paper to a classical journal)
Appealing, as I said. Buuuuuut…. no impact factor, no famous journal name. Just sound science. And here comes the promised question:
Should I encourage “my” student(s) to send their next papers to PCI?
One of the reason I haven’t made the leap so far is because I couldn’t make up my mind. On the one hand, the system is appealing (to me) and is likely to fix some annoying issues with the current publication system. My gut feeling is that it deserves to take off. But of course, it will only take off if we (“established” scientists, see above) go this way and, more importantly, if we value the science in PCI papers as we would value the science in any other journal. On the other hand, we need our papers to find audience, otherwise the science inside them won’t have made an impact and our students’ careers may not get the boost we want them to. Famous journals are under the spotlights, and that helps getting audience. This is maybe not the case yet for PCI.
None of these arguments is really new, but new ideas need time and discussion to mature. My guess is that people have had time to hear about “broken” publishing, open access, and PCI. Many people have thought about these issues; you probably have. Maybe what you may think now is better informed that what you could have thought few months ago. And maybe you can tell me whether I should encourage “my” student(s) to send their next papers to PCI**?
© Bastien Castagneyrol, September 17, 2019; illustration ditto, but licensed CC BY 4.0.
*^To the submitting author, I mean. There are still costs here, but they’re borne by fundraising by the “publisher”.
**^I anticipate some questions, so, to initiate the discussion, let’s assume that: (1) I can pay for article publication charges in a 100% open access or hybrid journal, (2) students are first authors, (3) students want to pursue their career in academia, (4) other co-authors don’t care.