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US faculty members support open-access publishing in broad survey

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A survey of more than 7,600 US faculty members found strong support for open-access (OA) models of publication, especially among younger respondents. At the same time, faculty members deciding where to submit a paper for publication are losing interest in journal impact factors, which reflect the average number of citations.

The survey, conducted by the New York City-based research firm Ithaka S+R, took place in late 2021. The results were published on 14 July.

OA publishing makes scientific literature freely available in perpetuity for all readers. Some research has found that OA scientific articles are more widely read and receive more citations than those published under a standard subscription model.

But a number of journals charge for publication. In 2021, for example, Springer Nature, which publishes Nature, began charging €9,500, £8,290 or US$11,390 to make a paper OA in Nature and 32 other journals. Some funders will cover researchers’ costs to publish their work in OA journals.

In the Ithaka S+R survey, 63% of respondents agreed with the statement: “I would be happy to see the traditional subscription-based model replaced entirely with an open access publication system in which all scholarly research outputs would be freely available to the public.” That proportion is essentially unchanged since 2018, the last time the triennial survey was conducted, but is six percentage points higher than in 2015.

The unchanging support for OA models since 2018 is a little surprising given ongoing discussions about scientific publishing and the flood of OA publications during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Melissa Blankstein, a senior analyst at Ithaka S+R. “We thought we’d see a shift,” she says. “It seems that traditional scholarly incentives continue to motivate publishing practices regardless of what happened over the last three years.”

Nearly three-quarters of faculty members under age 44 supported shifting to OA publishing, but older respondents were less enthusiastic. Sixty-three per cent of those aged 44–54 said they were in favour of such a move. Only 57% of those over 65 supported an OA model.

“The uptick in support from younger faculty is cause for continued optimism,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, an open-access advocacy organization based in Washington DC. “They have always had more of a natural disposition towards open access.”

More work needed

Joseph says it will take systemic changes to really move the needle on overall support for OA. “Too many faculty still automatically equate open access with paying high fees to publish their papers,” she says. “We have to double down on making sure that incentive and reward structures are updated to support open-science practices.”

The survey found that today’s faculty members are beginning to discount journal impact factors. Seventy-three per cent of respondents said that the impact factor or academic reputation of a journal was “highly important” when deciding where to publish an article — down from 79% in 2018 and 81% in 2015.

Blankstein suspects that attitudes about impact factors and support for OA are closely tied to the practical realities of tenure and promotion. Faculty members who see publishing in high-impact journals as a way to move forward professionally might be especially likely to value the measure.

Despite the perceived prestige of publishing in a journal with a high impact factor, there are reasons that some researchers would want to publish elsewhere, says Yvonne Couch, a neuroimmunologist at the University of Oxford, UK. “I think we’re seeing a general shift away from the traditional means of disseminating data,” she says.

Couch thinks that younger researchers, in particular, might be reluctant to pay large fees to publish in a high-impact journal when they could freely post their data on a preprint platform and share them on social media. Such efforts have the potential to get more exposure and attention than articles submitted to a major journal, she says. “We all know of papers published in one of these journals that are seen as good because of where they’re published, but barely get cited.”

Blankstein hopes that stakeholders in higher education — including publishers, university libraries and faculty members — will pay close attention to the shifting attitudes towards OA and impact factors. “These are data points to start a conversation about what to do next.”

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-02070-7

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