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Who Actually Reads Journal Articles?

A Personal Perspective: The open access vs. traditional publishing debate.

Dissemination is a crucial part of the research process, as it is how researchers share their findings with others – be it to fellow researchers, the wider academic community, other cohorts that could potentially feel the impact of such findings, and, indeed, the lay community. With that, dissemination in the form of peer-reviewed journal articles is often a primary focus for researchers, given that their publications and h-index are essentially "academic currency." The breadth of dissemination, particularly in the context of peer-reviewed journal articles, has been an issue of debate in recent years.

In terms of publishing research with "traditional" journals, you write a paper and get it published at no cost other than your time, effort, and maybe some grant funding to conduct the research. The publisher doesn’t really pay for it, either. Who does? The subscribers.

On a daily basis, I come across papers that I’d like to read and am advised that I can, for generally, around $30-$50. Of course, I’m not going to pay that. I’m going to access it through my institutional credentials. Institutions pay large sums of money each year to publishers to provide their academics with access to research papers. But what happens if you’re not affiliated with such an institution? What happens if you want to just read the paper out of curiosity or interest? Looks like you’re paying or "searching" online for a "free" version.

To some extent, "open access publishing" was borne of as a means to combat this cost to the reader; the breakdown becomes the researcher writes a paper, submits it, and, if accepted, will pay to get it published. The fee varies depending on the journal. I’ve been asked for anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000. The upside is that the reader doesn’t pay for it – hence, open access (OA), but neither does the publisher. In this case, the detriment falls on the researcher.

Of course, the aforementioned relationship between publisher and institution comes into effect again – there may be some arrangement wherein fees are waived as a result of some agreement between the two (though it seems there are more journals that I can read, without charge, as a result of university agreements than there are those that I can submit to without charge); or it may be the case that a researcher’s grant pays for publication. But what if you’re an early career researcher without funding for a particular manuscript? What if you’re an unfunded Master's or Ph.D. student?

In both scenarios, there are ups and downs, and there’s a lot more to this debate than what can be expressed in a brief post like this. However, while many arguments wind up going down a philosophical road (e.g., who should pay?), I want to focus on two rather practical issues that should be considered.

First, given the financial structure associated with OA (i.e., the author pays the journal), isn’t it in the journal’s favour to publish more work? Of course. Might that influence the quality of the work published? Absolutely. With that, the peer-review process remains, but there are always editorial decisions that trump such reviews. Now, I’m not saying that there’s some kind of conspiracy on behalf of OA journals – I’m just saying that there is, at the very least, implicit bias towards quantity over quality.

With that, there are many OA journals that conduct their business with high esteem. On the other hand, there are many predatory OA journals that exist, as well as other more "well-known" journals that may be a bit lax with respect to the quality of what they publish. Any academics reading this will know what I’m talking about.

That last sentence – regarding what academics know, as opposed to what non-academics might know, actually brings us to the next point. Who is actually reading these papers? Are non-academics? Let’s be realistic and practical about the occupational divide. Once, I tried to fix the water pump in my garage that sends hot water to my house.

After three hours, I gave up because I’m not a plumber! Sure, I can change a faucet or unblock a toilet, but there are some things I can’t do without the requisite skill set. Academia is no different. Sure, I’m an academic, but I’m completely lost trying to read and understand the type of statistical modeling requisite for an astrophysics paper.

With that, I can read and enjoy articles about space that have been summarised and written for lay communities. You can read that kind of dissemination almost anywhere (just make sure it’s a credible source!) without paying exorbitant journal costs. Okay, so maybe non-academics aren’t reading much of the actual primary-source research.

But surely other academics are reading them? Well, you would hope they are. But, I know many researchers in fields who have very poor readership – nothing to do with the quality of the work – just the nature of the field. As a researcher, I can track how many times my papers have been cited, and I know that there are few that haven’t been cited at all, which makes me wonder how many people have actually read them. Using that as an example, if you paid $10,000 for five papers to be published – that no one ever reads, much less cites, wouldn’t you feel a little stupid?

I don’t want to come across as a hypocrite or as if I’m anti-OA – I often publish with open-access journals – and, in reality, I’m indifferent towards it. Generally, I go with a journal that is the best fit for my research – and if that’s an open-access journal (and I have the funding), so be it.

I make these points because some people blindly promote OA as if it’s this ethical alternative to "traditional" publishing. I can also understand people who are against OA for equally valid ethical concerns. If no one’s reading your papers, why are you so concerned about whether or not it’s free? Who cares? More importantly, why should anyone be paying for it?

I’m not saying we should discourage submitting research to journals out of fear that no one will read it. Peer-reviewed publishing is foundational to research integrity and credibility. It’s also our "academic currency." In the grand scheme of things, none of this "knowledge" is any good if no one "knows" it.

If you’re concerned about access, then engage in "non-traditional" dissemination strategies (e.g., blogging, social media, podcasts, radio shows, etc.) to complement your publications (regardless of journal type) so that potentially interested parties are given additional and more accessible opportunities to see your research. Think about avenues that have the potential to reach large audiences and make efforts to utilise them.

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