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22/08/2014

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Open access: how much would it promote public engagement?

Clare Matterson and Graham Taylor disagree

Dear Graham,

A recent front page of the Daily Express read ‘New diet to beat agony of arthritis’. On the same day, Dame Janet Finch’s report on open access was published. The connection may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me.

The Wellcome Trust was very supportive of the Finch report. It sets out a path for the UK to follow towards ensuring that UK research, often paid for by the taxpayer, is made freely available for everyone to read and re-use. We recently announced plans to strengthen our open access policy so that all researchers who receive our funding make their publications freely available.

Open access will undoubtedly be good for science and scientists. But another, equally important group stands to benefit. The public is deluged by news of medical breakthroughs, yet cannot access the research behind these stories without paying a fee, typically around £20 per article. They cannot evaluate for themselves how accurate the reporting is or how significant the study. Their engagement with the research is limited to second-hand reporting by the media.

If we open up the journals to all, we also open science up for public scrutiny. Open access will be good for the public, too.

Best wishes,

Clare

Dear Clare,

The Publishers Association also supported the Finch recommendations. We were instrumental with others in setting up the Finch group and three publisher delegates attended. Finch proposed a ‘balanced package’ but with a clear policy direction towards funded open access as the main vehicle for publication of research. I respect the lead that The Wellcome Trust has given in this area.

But there are issues that must be resolved before we fully support your thesis that open access is ‘undoubtedly’ good for science. One of them will be how to fund access to science originating from outside the UK, which is not available on open access. And not all ‘science’ is biomedical. Who is to cover the cost of peer review and publication for researchers in the humanities and social sciences, many operating without research grants? Primary research can be accessed via library systems (we are currently working on a public library project) or via ‘rental’ models such as Deepdyve. Open access may in theory be good for the public, but may not in itself be sufficient.

Arguably we need an informed, trusted and readable intermediate layer between the Daily Express and the arcane world of many journal articles written for a specialist academic peer group. Perhaps Wellcome could fund that?

Best wishes,

Graham

Dear Graham,

I’m glad that we are in agreement over the Finch recommendations. Not yet having solutions on every aspect of supporting open access should not preclude us from seeking them. I agree, too, that journal articles, written for a specialist academic peer group, can be challenging to understand without the help of an ‘intermediate level’. This is what science communicators have been doing for years, from Brian Cox to the Science Museum ‘explainers’.

Since you asked, the Wellcome Trust spends around £10 million on public engagement and education each year. Many of these practitioners are themselves hampered by their inability to access the journals freely.

These activities should however complement, not replace, public access to research. If a member of the public wants to delve into the ‘arcane world’ of journals, who are we to judge whether or not they are capable of understanding what they find? Take patients: you may be surprised at the level of specialist knowledge they develop of their conditions.

As you suggest, library systems can provide some access to these papers, but in the age of the internet and of Wikipedia, it seems limiting - anachronistic even - not to allow access at home, at the click of a button, free of charge.

Best wishes,

Clare

Dear Clare,

I agree the ideal is universal Wikipedia style access to publicly funded research (by which I assume you mean the peer reviewed journal articles deriving from that research, not the report that researchers write for their funders).

Transition to 100 per cent open access is a pretty big task, so let's be realistic. All the world's funders, research institutes, researchers and publishers would have to line up. Annually, this involves 3m submissions, 2m published articles in 20,000 peer review journals, of which around 100,000 derive from UK-based researchers (I'm not clear how many of those derive grants from UK funders such as Wellcome).

My point is that open access for now at least and maybe the foreseeable future can only take us so far. So other models should be encouraged to complete the picture. The UK is about to take a big step towards open access for its own research outputs with a new government policy, and others will surely follow, but for now we need a mixed economy, the 'balanced solution' referred to by Finch.

Publishers will deliver open access so long as it is funded realistically, as Wellcome does. But we are deeply sceptical about the imposition on researchers of unfunded distribution mandates.

Best wishes,

Graham

Dear Graham,

The transition to complete open access is indeed a big task, but why not be ambitious? There is a real groundswell of opinion in support of open access in the UK, the USA, Europe and beyond. This is a real opportunity for the UK to lead the way, just as it has in the public engagement movement.

Should it matter that UK research will be freely available whilst other countries lag behind? It isn't ideal, but someone needs to make the first move. And science is universal after all: a discovery made in the UK is relevant across the globe. In fact, a significant proportion of Wellcome Trust-funded work is directly relevant to people in the developing world and there are many publics - health workers, advocates, patients - for whom free access could quite literally change their lives.

We have spent many years encouraging researchers to connect with the public, to inspire them with science, to build trust. We are proud of the advances made here. We see a public hungry for more science. Paywalls are an unwanted hindrance.

And there is one final irony in this debate: many of the major journals devoted to public engagement are themselves not open access. How very unengaging!

Best wishes,

Clare

Dear Clare,

Currently the UK is leading the way, thanks to Wellcome and Janet Finch's recommendations, endorsed by the government and welcomed by the Publishers Association. Both favour the 'gold' (funded) route to open access for UK-funded research. It doesn't matter if other countries lag behind so long as we realise that leading comes at a cost.

Hitherto, publication of UK research has been funded by global library budgets. Now that the UK intends to take on the cost of publishing its own research alone, the cost to the UK must go up in the short term. When the rest of the world follows, the costs will even out again. But ‘net exporters' like the UK will always under open access cover a disproportionate share of the overall costs. We still have to tackle the problem of the cost of open access publication for unfunded researchers. It would be an irony if 'open science' meant 'less science'.

Publishers have been working for decades to extend access into the developing world, for example Research4Life or INASP, and we are about to deliver access via the UK public library network as well. While we wait for universal open access, these initiatives are important for researchers not attached to the primary research institutes, for entrepreneurs, and for the public at large.

Best wishes,

Graham

Clare Matterson
Clare Matterson is Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust
Graham Taylor
Graham Taylor is Director of Educational, Academic and Professional Publishing at The Publishers Association
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