Today, we've teamed up with other leading UK medical research charities to support for open and unrestricted access to all of our research results.
But what is ‘open access’ publishing and why should we care?
The rise and fall of the paywall
Traditionally, researchers would disseminate the findings of their experiments in printed scholarly journals, which were then sold to subscribers and libraries. This paid for the staff and resources at the journal to organise the peer review, editing, typesetting, printing and distribution of the finished articles. To continue this model in the digital age, these journals put their content online, but behind a paywall so only subscribers could access.
Open access publishing challenges this model by making online research literature available for free to anyone, forever. And that includes scientists in poorer countries or small institutions that cannot afford the large subscription fees. In the last decade, new scholarly journals have sprung up providing all of its content as open access and many long-standing journals now have an open access option alongside the traditional pay-to-read content.
That means the results of research, which in our case is funded entirely by public donations, are open to the public and research community alike. We feel that this is especially important as a medical research charity, where our supporters are, in many cases, personally affected by the very diseases the research is tackling.
This is, in itself, A Good Thing. Many supporters we speak to are extraordinarily knowledgeable and adept at reading and interpreting technical scientific information. With the gamut of medical information on the internet – some a little dubious – we'd encourage the wider understanding and use of quality, expert-reviewed scientific literature.
What’s more, one of the hopes for open access is that it'll encourage researchers to write in a more accessible way. Some journals are already asking authors to provide a lay summary alongside the standard article, showing that there's a desire to serve the non-research professional community.
New insights, more patient benefit
And there are some real benefits for the science, too. Open access facilitates rapid and widespread sharing of knowledge and understanding. For example, open access papers have been shown to be more widely read and cited by other scientists than pay-to-read content, so maximising their reach and influence.
Open access can also encourage a collegiate and trusting culture. Raw data, software source code and lab materials are freely shared in the digital world. This makes it easier for the scientific community as a whole to corroborate and re-analyse research findings – by opening up the data behind a study, many others can quickly scrutinise the work rather than trying to repeat from scratch, and it is harder for authors to over-inflate the conclusions of their research.
And more than just a speedier sense-check, we hope an open system can truly promote innovation and discovery. Having unrestricted access to raw data, for instance, means other scientists can more easily combine and interrogate the data from many similar studies – a so-called 'meta-analysis' – to boost the power and rigour of the conclusions. This is a crucial step in the evaluation of new medicines – single trials rarely change clinical practice but a few studies meshed together can really show whether a treatment works or not.
Fully open access articles are also more readily available for some cutting-edge ‘big data’ investigations, like text- and data-mining. Supercomputers can draw on the many and varied data sources that now exist to spot connections individuals may not, leading to even more discoveries.
As good as gold
And it's this scientific benefit that argues in favour of ‘gold’ open access, over the alternative, less radical ‘green’ open access. Gold open access means that a scientific article is freely available, without subscription, at the point of publication. To do this, the authors of the article (often with the help of their institution or funder) pay an up-front fee, rather than readers or libraries through subscriptions. Green open access usually doesn’t require an up-front fee, but authors are allowed to post the full version of their article online after an embargo period of, say, six months.
‘Green’ still ticks many of the boxes for patients and supporters (as they may be more willing than scientists to wait a few months – a week is a long time in medical research as well as in politics) but doesn't bring as many of the research benefits.
With ‘gold’, authors rather than publishers usually retain copyright of the work. In most cases, through a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence, it allows free distribution and use of the content, as long as the original authors are properly credited. The scientific community are freed to build on these efforts and the impact of the work reaches far-and-wide. It allows the maximum use of the data we've spent considerable amounts of money to generate in the first place, ultimately so that we can accelerate progress that can lead to patients accessing better treatments sooner.
All this will increase the visibility of our research, which we hope will stimulate interdisciplinary and international collaboration. And it helps healthcare professionals, journalists and policy makers engage with the research and form more evidence-based decisions.
So instead of open access being an extra financial burden, this little top-up – 1% of our annual research spend – can make our investments work harder for the benefit of research and, ultimately, for patients.
The six charities in the coalition – us, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, Breast Cancer Campaign, Arthritis Research UK and the British Heart Foundation – all share this desire to maximise the impact of research by providing open and unrestricted access to the results.
Together, we're contributing £12 million to a shared open access fund, which will be administered by the Wellcome Trust initially as a two-year pilot. The Association of Medical Research Charities has been instrumental in bringing this alliance to fruition, and we'd like to see more AMRC member charities join over time.
More and more funders are taking an interest, with the US and UK governments and the European Commission instituting open access policies. Getting the right mechanisms in place as the scientific community as a whole moves entirely to open access is a challenge, and one we think is best tackled as a collective.
We'll work with universities so that they too can support open access, by using savings on any journal subscriptions they currently pay as these reduce over time. And we want to see publishers becoming more transparent about their business models, so we can get the best value for money from our investments – the collective approach will gather informative data during the transition to open access.
So, from next month, we'll ask our researchers, wherever they can, to publish their work so that it's freely available as soon as it is published. If they need it, they can use the Charity Open Access Fund to make this happen. At the very least, however, all research articles will be available to the public six months after the official publication date. These will be collected in the open access literature database, Europe PMC, to build up a vast treasure trove of scientific information.
By breaking down the barriers to the access and use of ours and others’ research results, we will as a broad community be better equipped to build on these insights to inspire new treatments and better care for these serious diseases.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License .