Open access and research impact: a researcher’s guide 

Does publishing open access improve research impact? And how can open access research impact be maximized?

These are some of the key questions researchers have about choosing where and how to publish their research and promote it after publication.  

In this blog, we’re going to look at how publishing open access can affect research impact and hear from researchers who chose to publish open access with impressive results

Vector illustration of a pink monitor with a blue locked padlock on it, with a giant blue key facing it.

Why choose open access?

Choosing to publish your research open access (OA) makes it freely and permanently available online. Anyone anywhere can read and build upon it. More and more authors are choosing to publish open access, not least because it has the potential to broaden the impact of their research. 

Vector illustration of a woman wearing a coral pink dress, standing in a doorway, facing a man wearing blue.

Below are just a few of the advantages for authors that come with publishing your research open access: 

  • Increase the visibility and readership of your research 

  • Demonstrate societal impact

  • Freely share your work  

  • Comply with funder mandates

Most academic publishers now offer open access journals and other open access publishing options. For more detail on how open access works and how to publish open access with Taylor & Francis, look at our handy guide to open access.  

How does publishing open access affect research impact?

“Open access is important because it gets the science to the public and not just to people with access to the journal,” explained Kristen Knutson, an Associate Professor at the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University, USA, discussing her article that reached the Altmetric Top 100 papers in 2018.  

Many factors will influence your decision on the best place and method to publish your research – in fact, we’ve written a whole guide about choosing the right journal

However, when you’re thinking about research impact it’s important to think about your audience and who you want to have an impact with. If you’re trying to reach audiences like policymakers or practitioners, publishing your research open access will mean that more of them have access to your work. Similarly, if you want to reach the public with your research messages, open access will allow anyone – the lay public, journalists, etc – to read your work.  

“The fact that my paper was published under an open access agreement led, I think, to the popularity of the article,” said Marco te Brömmelstroet, Associate Professor in Urban Planning at the University of Amsterdam, who published a paper exploring how different transportation methods impact our social relationships. “This is because it could easily be read and sent around, especially in the domain of planning practitioners.” 

Vector illustration of an open laptop with graphs on the screen, and a bar chart to the left of the laptop, two characters are standing around the laptop, one is holding a giant pink magnifying glass.

What more can you do to make an impact with your research?

Vector illustration of a bar chart, smallest bar is blue on the left, the tallest bar is pink in the middle, and the right bar is blue and is the middle tallest.

Publishing open access is just one element of the work that can go into making your research have a wider impact. Because research impact encompasses so many different types of impact – from policy impact to societal impact to economic impact and more – across every academic discipline, there’s no set formula for how to achieve it.  

However, there are some common themes you can build on when considering your own research and how to make it as impactful as possible.

Focus on the change you want to achieve 

You need to show to research funders and institutions how your work will/has had an impact. And you can only really measure that impact if you have a clear goal in mind from the start. 

Engage the right stakeholders at every stage of the research process 

Your research won’t deliver change if it’s not relevant to potential stakeholders or beneficiaries, or if they can’t understand it. And this isn’t something that you do at the end of your research project. In order to understand your target audience(s) and the questions they really want to be answered, you need to engage with them from the very beginning. Keep asking for their feedback as your work evolves. 

Create reach through effective communication 

Your findings won’t be able to deliver any kind of change if no one knows about them. Communication of the knowledge you develop is key to impact. You need to reach the audiences that can best build on or benefit from your work.  

There’s lots more on these tips – and how to put them into action – available in our free to download Research Impact free guide

The power of the press – a practical example

Promoting your research is, of course, a vital part of ensuring it makes an impact. One of the key ways you can do this is through a press release. This is something that Kristen Knutson (who we heard from earlier) and co-author Malcolm von Schantz, used to promote their paper ‘Associations between chronotype, morbidity and mortality in the UK Biobank cohort‘. 

“The press release and media contact were a coordinated effort between university relations at Northwestern University, the press office at the University of Surrey, and the publisher,” explained Dr Knutson. “We have experts at our institutions who help to write press releases, which is particularly helpful for those of us mainly used to writing scientific articles.” 

“When a paper has been accepted, I always consider whether it is newsworthy,” added Dr von Schantz. “In this case, we had no doubt. Working on a joint press release with two authors and two communications offices was complicated, but we got to an agreed product in the end.” 

And the article metrics are a testament to the success of this approach, with an impressive Altmetric score of 2273 and over 59,000 article views at the time of writing. (You can find out more about understanding article and journal metrics on our journal metrics page.) 

“The amount of coverage was greater than I expected,” said Dr Knutson. “I think the most surprising was Saturday Night Live weekend update. The second was a question on NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.” 

“We knew it would attract interest, and we knew that open access would help,” added Dr von Schantz. “But I don’t think we expected quite so much interest. After just a few weeks, it had more downloads than the previous four most downloaded papers of the journal put together.”  

Vector illustration showing a line of people handing each other discs with hearts, hashtags and speech bubbles, leading up to a smartphone with graphs showing on the display.

What are the challenges when your research makes an impact?

Of course, when your research does make it into the media, there can be challenges alongside the many positives. One of the biggest issues is how the media interpret the research, as Kristen Knutson and Malcolm von Schantz found. 

“It’s very difficult, in the brief format of media coverage, to get all the subtleties of your message across,” explained Dr von Schantz. “The most important thing [from our paper] which tends to get lost is that we don’t believe that being an evening type per se increases the risk of dying. What we think is more likely is that evening types having to get up early every morning, just like the morning types, even if they can’t fall asleep until late, adds to the risk.” 

“Coverage has been fairly accurate,” continued Dr Knutson. “One inaccuracy I saw was stating that our findings were that “going to bed later” was associated with mortality. Actually, these are people who may prefer to go to bed later, but we don’t know when they actually went to bed.” 

The verdict on open access research impact

So, what did Kristen Knutson and Malcolm von Schantz learn from their experience of publishing a high-impact article open access? 

“Open access definitely contributed to the reach this paper had,” said Dr Knutson.  

“Whilst every scientist wants to get their papers published in the most famous journals, these are hugely competitive, and this experience has taught me to be more relaxed about that,” added Dr von Schantz. “If the story of your paper is strong enough, it will have impact even if it’s not published in the highest-impact journals.”

Vector illustration of two characters facing each other and holding a giant coral speech bubble.

Where to next?

Want to find out more about how to make your research have an impact? Here’s where to go next: 

Share this post on social