Signing DORA and Overcoming the Tyranny of ‘Prestige’ in Research Assessment

Some feel that potential in research communications is stifled by the tyranny of ‘prestige’ when it’s measured solely by journal impact factor. The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and its supporters – including Karger Publishers – are promoting measures to enable a more balanced system.   

When we signed DORA early this year, we formalized our ongoing dedication to best practices and wide-reaching support of the research community. DORA, a global initiative launched in 2012, came out of the need to improve the way researchers and research outputs are evaluated. It aims to raise awareness, facilitate implementation, catalyze change and improve equity in scholarly communications. Nearly 22,000 organizations and individuals have signed to date.

To this end, DORA guides publishers, research funders, institutions, researchers and organizations that provide metrics for publications with an array of recommendations. The first is this: “Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion or funding decisions.” What exactly is the problem with impact factor? It can be useful, but overdependence on impact factor as a criterium to assess individuals and their work can create a vicious cycle.

Put very simply, if career-impacting decisions are made based on the impact factor of the publication in which a job seeker or grant applicant has published, a number of consequences may ensue: Authors may feel pressure to prioritize impact factor above all else when seeking a venue to communicate their work – and that can come at the expense of choosing an Open Access journal or another well-suited journal just because it has a lower impact factor, for example. Or, pressured to heighten impact factor, journals may overlook articles with valuable insights because they’re less likely to reap ‘impact’-boosting citations. All this can all hamper wider adoption of Open Access and Open Science practices, which are at the core of scientific principles.

We as a publisher may not be able fundamentally to change the situation. But we can support our stakeholders advocating for change and ensure we provide publishing conditions that are conducive to a dynamic, equitable research ecosystem. Here’s how we practice DORA’s recommendations for publishers:

  • We have mindfully reduced emphasis on journal impact factor as a promotional tool. While impact factor is important information, we aim to convey it in context.
  • We communicate a range of metrics on our website at an article and journal level, of which impact factor is just one. This presents a thorough, balanced snapshot of our journals.
  • We strongly encourage responsible authorship practices and guide authors so they understand what these are. Our published articles include information about each authors’ specific contributions.
  • We facilitate re-use of reference lists in research articles and support the Initiative for Open Citations (I4OC), making citation metadata openly available via Crossref.
  • We ask authors to adhere to the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). That includes guiding them to “provide direct references to original research sources when possible” and we generally do not strictly limit the number of references in research articles, particularly in online publications without print constraints.

The challenges of research assessment appear to be deep-seated, and it has proven rather difficult to move the needle. But we join with DORA and so many members of the research community to raise awareness and work toward a more equitable, open ecosystem.

Open Science: Fighting Faster, Smarter and More Equitably against Covid-19

There have been heated debates about how exactly to deal with the recent Covid-19 pandemic. But one thing most people can agree on (besides being ecstatic if/when this is fully behind us) is that the benefits of Open Science have never been clearer.  

Open Science (OS) describes a broad set of activities and practices aimed at making scientific processes and output more collaborative, accessible, transparent and effective. Through technological and cultural change, Open Science can enhance the ways research, education and innovation are carried out and disseminated via digital tools, networks and media.  

Currently, the most widespread element of Open Science within scholarly communications is Open Access (OA). Open Access makes published articles free to read, share and re-use in accordance with the license applied. Often, Open Access publishing is financed via a per-article payment from the author or author’s research funder, as opposed to the model under which readers pay subscription fees in exchange for access. However, the crisis made it crucial to remove all barriers to access. So we made hundreds of articles related to Covid-19 immediately and freely available, regardless of the model they were published under, and signed a statement affirming our commitment to doing so. Even as the intensity of the pandemic is seeming to abate, the articles remain free, with about 100 of them fully Open Access. (Karger Open Access articles are published under a Creative Commons license, which requires the authors’ signatures. It is not possible to make previously published articles retroactively Open Access, and authors do not always sign this agreement.)    

Preprints and Open Data

Two other Open Science elements that have gained traction are preprints – essentially the manuscript of an article before it is submitted to a journal and thus before peer review – and open data, with authors making their underlying research data freely available, usually via a specialized repository. Both have been instrumental to advancing knowledge about the Coronavirus and how it affects human health, its transmission, prevention and more.  

While peer review helps ensure research findings presented in scientific articles have been scrutinized and approved by experts in the field, the process of peer review and publication can be lengthy. Preprints allow scientists to share new findings as quickly as they can write them so they can reach other scientists, policy makers, and the public. Our policies support authors who choose to share preprints before submission, and we collaborate with the well-known preprint servers medRxiv and bioRxiv to allow authors to submit papers to some of our journals via an easy transfer of their preprint.  

The Danger of Infodemics

That said, preprints should be considered with caution, as we saw amid the desperation for news and cures: Preprints helped to swiftly disseminate urgently needed information, but they were also used by some to feed an “infodemic” of sometimes false or misinterpreted information that even hindered efforts at times. The information they contain is not (yet) peer reviewed – that is, vetted by experts. Journalists and others in the public may not emphasize or recognize that the conclusions are tentative and may even be disproven in the future. And by the time any findings in preprints might be refuted, it’s too late: They may have spread across traditional and social media, with people all over the world acting on the advice. The Covid-19 pandemic produced some notorious situations with preliminary information being proven wrong or at least inconclusive. That’s a perfectly normal course of events in research, and getting feedback from other scientists can be one of the benefits of posting a preprint. But the early, unconfirmed nature of preprints can harm individuals if they act on the early findings and either doubt or never see subsequent reports with different recommendations.  

Open and FAIR

Informing the public that preprints contain preliminary, unreviewed information and educating science journalists about their use may help. But another aspect of Open Science, open data, can also help by allowing other scientists to check the preliminary studies. Research data is usually defined as the underlying evidence needed to validate and replicate findings reported in an article. If that data is open and “FAIR” (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable), others can try to validate and reproduce it. Research funders and institutions increasingly require authors to make their data open, and we have introduced comprehensive guidance for authors on how and why to share their data, which we strongly encourage at all times. 

Some of our actions during the pandemic may not be strictly classified as Open Science, but they share the same spirit of striving to empower rapid, unrestricted knowledge exchange to stabilize public health.  

For example:  

  • Despite the sudden volatility in everyone’s work environment, we processed a huge surge of submitted articles, in particular related to Covid-19, to maintain the timely flow of information. 
  • We continue to publish and curate pertinent articles across all our publications and platforms, from our virology-related journals to The Waiting Room blog. This content covers everything from helping Coronavirus patients with co-morbidities, to diagnosis, to societal and mental-health impacts, to olfactory disorders and treatment.   
  • We made our Fast Facts medical handbook series free to access online – and will keep it free beyond the pandemic. We also created free Fast Facts eLearning courses to help maintain education and engagement when people were restricted from interacting live.   
  • We granted more access to non-Open Access content for institutions in need.  
  • We upgraded subscription access, expanded licenses and added features for a host of customers and ePartners.
  • We gave free access to especially relevant education courses 
  • We created many more free webinars and online training sessions. 

At the core of what we do is connecting and advancing health sciences throughout the entire knowledge cycle. Open Science practices and other support make this as efficient and beneficial as possible for the greatest number of people. We are grateful for the many ‘front line workers’, scientists, and policy makers who have worked to improve all outcomes in the face of the pandemic, and we’re rather proud of the contribution we could make to the global fight against Covid-19.    

Further Reading: Scholarly Communication in Times of Crisis: The response of the scholarly communication system to the COVID-19 pandemic by the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) 

Transforming to Open Access with Transformative Journals

Working to advance Open Access (OA), an essential element of Open Science, can feel like solving a Rubik’s Cube: the end goal is clear but the way there isn’t always. Working through the challenges requires deliberation and some openness to trying different possible solutions. One of these is the Transformative Journal.

Karger introduced the Transformative Journal, sometimes called a TJ, to our program in 2021. While our seven Transformative Journals certainly are not the only piece needed to solve the OA puzzle, they hold a lot of promise to move OA forward in the right direction.

To understand what Transformative Journals are, it helps to have in mind a definition of OA and some of the main types.

  • Gold Open Access: The version of record (final, published version) of articles is permanently free to read, share and re-use. Often, publication costs are covered by an Article Processing Charge (APC), which may be paid by a funder, institution, or author.
  • Open Access Journal: Journals that publish only Open Access articles.
  • Hybrid Journal: Originally subscription only, these journals let authors choose whether to make their articles OA through payment of a fee (by the institution, research funder, or author) or publish them under the subscription model.

(There are more types of OA and terminology. We encourage you to have a look at the explanations on our Open Access pages.)

In these terms, Transformative Journals are essentially hybrid journals. But Transformative Journals don’t merely offer authors a choice – they proactively encourage publication of more OA articles. The idea is to make OA publishing even easier and fast-track a sustainable transition to OA. When Transformative Journals reach a certain share of OA articles (75% OA), they are designated to “flip” to OA, i.e. convert to the OA business model.

Plan S

Transformative Journals started taking hold as one possible stepping stone to a more open future when Coalition S, a group of research funders, recognized them as a way to help authors comply with certain mandates under Plan S. Plan S is a set of stringent, wide-reaching, complicated and somewhat controversial requirements intended to promote OA, though they also present challenges to authors and publishers. To comply with the mandates, Coalition S-funded authors must publish their articles as OA under certain terms. One option is to publish in an OA journal and another is to make the author’s manuscript freely available in a repository. Or, authors may publish under a transformative arrangement – meaning either in a hybrid journal that is covered by a special agreement (known as a Transformative Agreement) with their institutions, or in a Transformative Journal.

One of our missions is to support authors in every way possible, which is why we help them comply with virtually every OA mandate – so facilitating compliance with the Plan S mandates is one great benefit of our Transformative Journals. Another benefit is the way they address some of the above-mentioned challenges of advancing OA.

Barrier-Free Publishing

For one, there’s the question of how to pay for OA publishing. OA makes important scientific knowledge rapidly available to all, a benefit that has become even more obvious since the pandemic began. But the services that publishers provide (such as managing peer review, editing, and ensuring discoverability) entail costs that must be paid for. In lieu of subscription income, those costs may be covered by APCs, but that can create new barriers for the many authors who lack funding. Transformative Journals do not provide a long-term solution to that problem, but – in a transitional phase – they do allow those who can pay for it to publish OA; and those who cannot may continue to publish under the subscription route.

That leads to another challenge that Transformative Journals help navigate as we aim for a sustainable move to more open research: Even authors who have the means to publish OA don’t always choose to. There’s been much scrutiny of the reasons, and usually it comes down to this: Whether they understand the advantages of OA or not, when it comes to submitting their papers, authors base their decisions on other factors, such as the community of researchers they will reach or the journal’s prestige, typically measured by impact factor (IF).

Sustainable Transition

While efforts such as the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) aim to lessen the grip that the IF holds on researchers, funders, institutions and journals, Transformative Journals in the meantime allow us to meet authors where they are. We can make OA more attractive and efficient and show authors the benefits of OA, while still offering the freedom to publish in the journal that most fits their needs. This is not only for the authors’ sake, but is also crucial to making the transition to OA and OS truly sustainable. We have flipped over a dozen journals from subscription to OA in the last few years and hope to flip more. But flipping journals if authors aren’t keen to publish OA is destabilizing rather than sustainable.

At the same time, we recognize that moving to an open research world is complex and lacks a quick fix. So we continue to explore alternative solutions even as we work on Transformative Journals, flipping, launching new OA journals and Transformative Agreements – in addition to adopting policies and innovations that support Open Science. We would welcome your thoughts on Transformative Journals and how the transition to more open research availability and practices can be supported further!

Learn more about Open Access and Open Science.

On Open Access Week: A Newly OA Journal with Vision

Flipping our journal Ophthalmic Research in 2021 has proven to be anything but shortsighted. We kicked off our own Open Access Week with an internal event, a Best-in-Class example, and a pub quiz.  

The journal’s success as one that “flipped” – that is, converted – from the subscription business model to Open Access (OA) shows that OA was clearly the right move, as Editor-in-Chief Dr. Hendrik Scholl told staff during a company  event for International Open Access Week. Dr. Scholl is currently the director of the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel (IOB) and Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology of the University of Basel, with an array of international experience in the field.

Ophthalmic Research Journal for Translational and Clinical Research

Ophthalmic Research

During OA Week, academic and research communities around the world engage with OA, and advancing OA is a major priority for us too. So, for the first time, we hosted our own Karger Publishers community event for OA Week with two parts, both virtual: First, in an informal interview,  Dr. Scholl shared his experiences helping to lead the journal’s transformation into OA. Next, we employees tested our knowledge and learned more about OA and Open Science in a “pub quiz” competition that was beer-free but fun and challenging.

Reaching More Communities through Open Access

OA is a rapidly expanding way of publishing that makes journal articles immediately and permanently free for everyone to read, share and re-use. Limits on commercial re-use or other restrictions may apply depending on the type of license used. To cover publication costs, authors or their research funders or institutions typically cover the costs of publication, in contrast with the subscription model under which readers pay for access. With OA, many more people can read publications much more quickly, to the benefit of individuals, researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and others.

Flipping is one way to speed up the transition to OA. But it can also carry risks – for example, losing authors who submit papers, as Karger Publishers CEO Daniel Ebneter explained while interviewing Dr. Scholl.

But for Ophthalmic Research, just the opposite happened: The journal was handling a high number of submissions during the pandemic, as many academic publications were. As is often anticipated after flipping, submissions indeed dipped, though the dent was manageable – down to roughly pre-pandemic numbers. After only a few months, however, they had ballooned back to near-record levels. “The outcome was excellent,” Dr. Scholl reported.

Not only did submissions rise, but use of the articles, measured in clicks, soared. That was a more anticipated but no less delightful development – evidence that OA can increase the visibility of articles, allowing research to achieve greater impact.

Such visibility was one of Dr. Scholl’s and his colleagues’ top reasons for making the leap to OA. Another was to be a leader in the ophthalmology subject area, in which only about 20% of journals were fully OA. “Flipping to OA would mean we would join that… forefront of journals that would be OA. And we felt that would be a competitive advantage.”

To Flip or Not to Flip? Some Advice

What advice might Dr. Scholl have for leaders of journals who are considering flipping to OA? For one, they should be sure to work with a professional publisher they can rely on, with whom there is a good rapport and teamwork, and that has the experience to handle the technical challenges of flipping.

As for concerns that OA may exclude promising authors who can’t afford Article Processing Charges (APCs) – especially in disciplines with less funding – Dr. Scholl pointed out that publishers may have programs to cover those costs. Our program to waive or discount APCs for authors in need gave him confidence that authors submitting a paper with excellent science will have a fair chance to publish it, he said.

Open communication with associate editors and editorial board members is also crucial, Dr. Scholl emphasized. If everyone understands the vision of greater and quicker visibility and other potential benefits from OA, they can better manage to weather any challenges that may come with flipping.

The Need for Speed – and Peer Review

Taking a step back to consider OA and Open Science more broadly, Mr. Ebneter and Dr. Scholl spoke about the trending use of preprints, which are scientific papers before peer review or editing. While speed is generally very welcome, one drawback is the difficulty for scientists to recognize if what they’re reading is validated data. We, the publisher and journal, provide an extremely valuable service, Dr. Scholl said – we give authors feedback and help them improve their work and moreover we produce articles that are not only nicer and easier to digest thanks to services like editing, but also guaranteed to be validated through peer review.

Learn more about Open Access and Open Science.

Beth Bayley

Beth is Open Science Manager and Open Science Task Force co-lead. Her chief missions are helping drive forward Karger Publishers’ sustainable transition to Open Access, often active in strategy, policy and communications; and otherwise putting into motion steps toward more open scholarly communications. A perfect weekend involves a combination of family, travel, books, comedy and/or theater, and perhaps a walk around the Swiss Alps for good measure.