Bates isn’t opposed to open access—she’s published work in and reviewed papers for open-access journals. But she’s also realistic about the perception that surrounds open access when it comes to advancing her career. At a time when the job market in science is extremely competitive, the institutions combing over resumes aren’t looking for someone’s commitment to the open-access cause, they’re looking at their potential for big research. And in many cases that potential is measured through publication in so-called “glamour” journals like Science and Nature and the British Medical Journal.
Here’s one way to understand the perceived distinction in journal status. Many people use something called an Impact Factor to measure how influential a journal is. The Impact Factor is a simple calculation: Take the number of times articles were cited the year after they were published, and divide that by the total number of articles the journal published in the same year. Based on that ratio, Nature’s impact factor was 42 in 2013. The open-access journal Public Library of Science, One had an impact factor of 3.5 that year. Impact Factor has been heavily criticized, methodologically, and many have called for institutions and funding agencies to completely ignore it. But the fact is that they don’t. More than that, some universities don’t allow scientists to put any paper on their tenure application that was published in a journal with an impact factor below five.
So for someone focused on building a career, it makes sense to try and go for the closed publication. “If I’m not going to publish it in a glamour publication, sure, I’ll publish in a good open-access journal,” said Bates. “But given the opportunity to publish in one of those five glamour publications I’m going to put it there every time, because having something quantifiable matters.”
Virginia Barbour has worked at the Public Library of Science—one of the groups at the forefront of the open access battle—for 10 years now. She says that the perception of which journals are most valuable is changing. “Alongside the growth of open access has been an increased understanding that measuring the journal that way isn’t really working anymore.”
Gezelter and Bates don’t agree. “No, I think it’s getting more entrenched,” Gezelter told me. “The people reviewing us aren’t necessarily reading our papers but they can count, so they’re counting our papers. This problem is actually not being helped.” Bates agreed: “I think it’s getting worse, and I think in some cases it’s getting much worse.”
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In some ways, the struggle here is to be expected, because what we’re really talking about is changing a culture. Science has not, traditionally, been an open discipline. In some fields that’s because work can be turned profitable. In other fields, it's simply tradition. Culture change is hard, and it takes work—work that is often done by the younger generation.