When the Homo Naledi discovery was announced I was excited to see that the initial publication was in an open access journal, eLife. In fact to me this was a huge relief for, now that my adjunct teaching days are done and I am gainfully employed in the museum sector, I no longer have access to journals through a university library. (But, then again, I won’t have to rewrite my human evolution lecture. So there’s that.)
One day at work I decided to abstain from my usual time wasting behaviors of Facebook and reading the comments section of the Washington Post, and instead invest my downtime in reading the Naledi piece. Look at me! I’m reading an article for fun! Truly this is one of the most liberating experiences of being outside the academy: now I read scholarship for pleasure.
I was proud of myself for making it all the way to the end, feeling like I got it. Okay, so I skimmed over some of the anatomy stuff, but not all of it. Nothing I can’t handle with a dictionary nearby. With no one to impress with my studiousness except my fellow librarians (who are all, of course, very studious), I looked forward to sharing a bottle of wine with my wife (a biologist and “real” scientist) and telling her all about the findings. We frequently have animated discussions about human evolution, so it came as a surprise when she didn’t want to talk about Homo Naledi rather what grabbed her attention first was that the authors had chosen to go OA.
Jessica has established herself an open access skeptic in our previous kitchen conversations, which unfolded something like…
Her: So where did they publish? Didn’t you say it was the cover of Nature?
Me: No. Cover of National Geographic. Lee Berger had a NGS Explorer grant.
Her: Where then? Science?
Me: No, they went open access. Something called eLife.
Her: Really?! Wow. But why? *gives side eye*
Me: I don’t know if they’ve stated a reason.
Her: Faster to press maybe? That is one thing that the open access journals have over traditional venues.
Me: IDK, but I think it shows how OA is really mainstreaming in anthropology.
Her: Who makes that call? Like, do you think the post-docs and assistant professors on that pub were like, “Hey man, this could be the cover of Science. This could be Nature.”
Me: IDK. Do you think if you’re the sixth or seventh author on the discovery of the decade it really matters? You’re on the discovery of the decade!
Her: Maybe… But then getting on those pubs is how people get jobs. it could make a difference in whether or not someone gets tenure. Some administrator could be like, “Eh, I’ve never heard of eLife” and you get denied.
Me: But how often does that really happen? People getting denied tenure by administrators once they get past their departments.
Her: It happens all the time. Every year. All the denials (at her uni) come from administrators because everyone gets past their departments.
Me: But do people get denied tenure because of which venue they choose to publish in, or because of some bizarre, internecine political struggle?
Her: Probably more likely the latter.
Me: You are correct that accumulating the right kind of publications is all about economies of prestige, but that’s an artifact of academic culture. And culture being learned behavior is something we can change. That’s why they say “Only the Senior Faculty Can Save Us Now”. We need the senior faculty to publish OA, bringing their prestige with them to burnish these new titles to get people to change their attitudes.
Her: *looks skeptical*
The following day I’m back at work, checking out what’s on tap over at my favorite NPR talk show when lo and behold its blogger extraordinaire and Fedora model John Hawks (who is also known in some circles as being pretty good at this anthropology thing) with several of his colleagues talking about Naledi. I start thinking that what I need to do is call in to the radio show and pitch him an open access question so he can knock it out of the park.
@drshow For the study authors, you could have had a cover at Nature or Science, why did you choose an online open access journal to publish?
— Matt Thompson (@M4ttTh0mps0n) September 14, 2015
Much to my delight (and to the surprise of my co-workers as I started pumping my fists in the air) the host read my tweet.
John, who was on the phone from South Africa, had to go before the host read my question (which came second-to-last in the show), but as Jamie Shreeve, who wrote the National Geographic cover story, made clear time to publication was a major factor in the decision to go with an open access publisher. The authors did have Nature in mind. But the scale of the study, which included some 1,500 individual fossils, contributed to the complexity of navigating traditional scholarly communication venues.
h/t to the Wife, for getting it right.
One final note. As one who uses an information science framework to research open access I am often struck with how OA activists will sometimes claim that once the toll-gates come down that, naturally, articles will reach wider audiences and receive more citations. Seldom is this demonstrated empirically, which is a shame because it would be easy to do. Take something like Cultural Anthropology which was formerly toll-gated and is now OA. How did the downloads circulate before and how do they circulate now? What were citation rates like previously, what are they like now? Let’s do some good ol’ Compare and Contrast.
What is more typical is for OA advocates to merely make the assertion and not back-up their statements, and I think: If I an anthropologist was making a knowledge claim like this in their own area of expertise, this would never fly.
— Lee Berger (@LeeRberger) September 15, 2015
So its cool to see Lee Berger tweeting about the success of his team’s decision to go OA with numbers to back it up. You catch a scent of the enthusiasm and excitement, which probably motivated this tweet more so than a desire to satisfy LIS bean-counters like myself, and its hard not to get wrapped in the moment too.
This is indeed a proud moment for open access science. Here’s to many more!