The climbing metaphor, or where should we encourage students to send their papers?

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.


8 thoughts on “The climbing metaphor, or where should we encourage students to send their papers?

  1. Emilie Champagne

    I have the same questions, but as a not well established researcher who’s knowledgeable in Open Access… I wish I could have sent more of my PhD papers in OA journals. But I don’t have the money and I want a job. The last point is important because the gatekeepers of those jobs can be against OA. I’ve heard from a collaborator that his colleagues perceived negatively a publication record including mostly OA journals.
    A small point on the goal of OA. To me, it’s less about access for the general public than access for all scientist. I know the opinions differ on that, but as a gov postdoc, I currently feel the lack of access.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I think it’s an interesting empirical question whether the general public actually wants, or will use, access to scientific literature. It’s a bit of an odd proposition that they would, in a way: I’m the “general public” with respect to government working-document economic forecasts, for example (in the sense that they’re paid for by my taxes) but I’m not particularly interested in reading them and probably wouldn’t get much out of them if I did. It would be fascinating to see usage stats by the general public of open-access papers – not just downloads, of course, but actual reading and use of what’s in there. (Which would be almost impossible to find, of course).

      Journalists would be an exception – but there are other ways to provide journalist access.

      None of this is an argument against open access; but it’s an admission of puzzlement at *one* of the arguments one hears for open access!


    2. Bastien Castagneyrol

      Whether “general public” will actually reads OA papers is indeed a fascinating question. I never read anything about it but I guess that somebody already ask, or will ask shortly. That would be very interesting.

      OA is surely worthy, globally, for many reasons. But worthy does not mean that it pays off, individually. I am curious to know what is the proportion of job gatekeepers that are in favor or against OA – regardless of the economic model. My feeling is that on the Internet pro-open science voices speak louder, but that this does not reflect, as yet, the reality of what happens when people screen CV and interview applicants. I would be happy to be wrong.


  2. Pavel Dodonov

    The main issue with the author-pays models is that the cost is often impossible for researchers in developing countries to pay, even with grants. For example: Ecosphere publication fee of 1500 dollars equal approximately 6000 Brazilian reais. A PhD scholarship in Brazil is about 2000 reais per month, and these scholarships are often the students’ only source of income.
    If the idea is to make science more available for people outside Academia to read, I think that a better option is to invest in producing science outreach content, in addition to the papers. So instead of spending 1500 USD on a publication, why not pay someone to prepare accessible texts and videos on the subject, which can be seen and understood by everyone?


  3. Shaun

    I joined a new PCI as a recommender although I haven’t handled any preprints yet. I would say that there is little to no harm in seeking a PCI recommendation for your preprints and there are likely to be benefits.

    As noted, you can still submit your PCI recommended paper to a regular journal. All that’s happened with your preprint is that there are an extra 3+ people who are saying how useful and interesting your work is (and noting applicable caveats). Any useful comments you get during the PCI process will help you improve your paper and should therefore improve its chances in the journal you end up submitting to. And you get a detailed public recommendation of your contribution that you can quote from in funding applications, reducing your reliance on things like journal impact factors and citation counts.

    There are only 2 downsides. One is that doing PCI before submitting to a journal will probably delay your submission to a journal. The second is that some journals are not PCI friendly. The PCI website has a list of friendly and unfriendly journals.

    But so long as your target journals are PCI friendly I think you would benefit overall from a PCI recommendation. If, in the long run it helps us get rid of those $3000 APCs then we all win.

    One final note: MIT Press provides a free journal hosting service called PubPub. You can use their platform and publish papers with DOIs for free. So if you’re sick of choosing between pay to publish and pay to read there’s a free and easy way to do something about it. If you want to self-host there’s also Open Journal Systems from PKP/Simon Fraser University.


  4. brembs

    Cool post and I like the climbing analogy – even though I prefer the hierarchy between faculty and students to be much shallower than a cliff 🙂

    Just a few thoughts that occurred to me reading this post (since you link to one of my posts on the matter):

    1. Since I got tenure, I let my non-tenured co-authors decide where we publish. For me, journal venue has become irrelevant, but not for them:

    2. If they ask, I advise my students to post a preprint as early as possible, to have something to show in case the review process takes years (it happens) and to establish precedence. I also advise them to think about a rational publication strategy. Ration means thinking about the priorities. Highest priority, I’d argue, is career protection: it’s hard to do science or help science when you’re not in science. So go for the handful of journals with name recognition in your field. But if that gets rejected and it’s going to land in a journal the name of which is not going to stick in people’s memory, other things may become more important than venue: readership, ease of access or even a political angle. So when the top priority can’t be met (statistically in about 92% of all cases), think about second priorities!
    I’m also participating in PCI but generally I would advise authors not to let the PCI process interfere with the traditional (legacy) publishing workflow and timing.

    3. Access for human readers in general is not really a problem any more! There now are so many alternative ways to get access, that more than 95% of nominally paywalled content is actually accessible:
    So please, please, please: do not take even the slightest risk to increase access! Whoever really needs you work will be able to get it, thanks to new tools and solutions that weren’t around until about 2012/13 or so.

    4. If possible, do not support APC-OA as this solution carries with it a very high risk to make things much, much worse:


  5. Pingback: We can’t all be groundbreakers – we need bricklayers too | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.