Open access has always been promoted for its reputational benefits. The OA citation advantage is one way in which advocates try to convince researchers of the benefits of publicly sharing their work. So too is the increased speed of publication and broader reach of open access research. At the university level, institutional repositories are often framed as a ‘showcase’ for a university’s research quality. In trying to change behaviour towards openness, people are more easily motivated out of self-interest than mere altruism.

But researchers are also motivated by the need to publish in prestigious and ‘high-impact’ venues, which often precludes the possibility of open access forms of publication. A recent paper posted on PeerJ preprints by Erin McKiernan et al. shows just how prevalent the much-maligned Impact Factor still is in the documentation on review, promotion and tenure procedures in North American universities. Many universities still associate the IF with quality, prestige and impact, requiring researchers to prioritise high impact factor journals above all else.

A common response to the problem of prestige publishing from open access advocates is to want to reward researchers for publishing OA by including it in the criteria for career progression. If we can only evaluate researchers for their open practices, the argument goes, more people would embrace open access in order to progress in their careers. While admirable in its intentions, this idea is likely to result in a similar situation whereby researchers all rush towards the most prestigious open access venues (i.e., those usually with eye-wateringly expensive APCs). Treating ‘open access’ (in whatever form that may take) as the end goal of publishing, rather than its beginning, may well increase the amount of freely accessible research, but it will not do anything to resist or transform cultures of evaluation that require researchers to publish increasing amounts for fewer gains.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has an interesting idea that universities should refuse rankings and instead (following her colleague Christopher Long) promote forms of evaluation that reward equitable, collaborative and open cultures based an entirely different set of values to the competitive, neoliberal university:

A process like this would enable us to understand that the things that count most for us might exist outside the countable. And a process like this, rather than require us to be ranked against one another, would ask us to think about how our work contributes to our collective goals as a department, a college and an institution.

Although this would be a step in the right direction, such an approach is not without its pitfalls. As always, I am highly sceptical of ‘values-driven’ approaches to anything institutional: who decides these values? How can they be changed? How do you account for conflicting values? You can bet that the values of university administrators differ significantly to those of PhD students, for example. The university space requires us to continually apprehend the aporia that necessitates the promotion of both difference and collectivity that cannot be overcome by measuring people against values-based principles.

The relationship between open access and career progression is a particularly knotty problem that will take a long time to resolve. In the meantime, while there are so few academic jobs available for qualified researchers, we should not chide junior scholars for not choosing open access outlets for their work when doing so would potentially hinder their careers. Publishing ‘strategies’ are not a zero-sum game between open and closed, but contain a rich and diverse mixture of practices, content and forms of dissemination (of which OA can be an integral part). The burden of change should be placed on those in positions of privilege, power and influence, not precariously employed researchers on the bottom rung of academia.

So no amount of open access will fix the broken job market. Until and unless more research jobs become available, particularly for early-career scholars, academics will not have the freedom to explore new ways of publishing that most befit their research.