Friday, December 18, 2009

Should You Submit Papers to Open Access Journals?

Here is an article on how to choose a journal to submit to in the field of paleontology (yes, recently I like to read blogs about dinosaur and other vertebrate paleontology). I disagree with quite a few of the points in the article. In particular, the blogger favors open access journals but then admits that anyone can pretty much get a copy of an article in the form of a pdf if they want one whether it is published by a commercial publisher or not. Whether we really need traditional journals or even journals at all is also a good question, but let's focus on open-access journals here.

Many scientists argue that there is no reason to give money to commercial publishers like Elsevier when academics can nowadays organize many of their functions on their own (using institutional resources) - though someone has to pay the editor/managing editor if a serious refereeing process is going to be carried out. But assuming that this is a worthy goal, in many disciplines such as economics there are very few serious open access journals as yet and these aren't catalogued by Thompson/ISI/WoK and don't have much of a track record.

I think it is still important to publish in journals that are indexed by Thompson/ISI/WoK and I disagree on ignoring impact factors. There are now 5 year impact factors available from them and from These turn out to be pretty correlated with the 2 year ones even in a slow discipline like economics. Given this it makes most sense to go ahead and publish with Elsevier as every research library in the developed world is going to subscribe to them if not to anything else (it’s hard to get published in the top not-for-profit journals in econ. as they have rejection rates like Nature and Science – and take much longer to turn around manuscripts).

What we do have in economics is a very strong system of working paper series (catalogued by RePEc and SSRN) which has total free access but is not refereed. But my journal articles definitely get more citations than my working papers do (which in turn do better than my book chapters). Journals in econ don’t care that the paper is already online as a working paper. Neither do any of the natural science ones I’ve dealt with.

It is true that university libraries are much less useful than they used to be for people who are not members of the institution. Members of the public used to be able to walk in and take a copy of a journal off the shelf and read it. Now you usually need passwords to access the computers in the library. So open-access journals can play a role in providing access to those who aren't members of institutions. But as I've said, in economics many or most papers are available online as working papers anyway and if not, you can usually get a copy of a paper by e-mailing the author.*

This is a public good problem. Supporting open-access journals might be good for the dissemination of science but currently individual academics will lose from publishing papers in them. And the public benefit is probably lower in economics than some other disciplines.

* This is usually my last resort (or second last to actually paying a publisher for an article). First is to check my library, followed by Google Scholar, followed by interlibrary loan, followed by asking someone close at another institution if they have it there.

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