Issue 12 / 4 April 2016

THE rise of citizen journalism, and of businesses like Uber and Airbnb, has seen traditional structures and economic models shattered across a swathe of industries and fields of human endeavour.

The so-called digital disruption has hit scientific publishing too, though the world’s biggest journal publishers are mostly still trying to cling to their outdated models of revenue generation and control.

For over a decade now, many in the scientific community have been questioning why, in the age of information sharing, the results of publicly funded research still take so long to be released – and even then are often locked away behind journal paywalls.

New digital platforms have certainly emerged – the Public Library of Science journals, for example, have published more than 140 000 open access, peer-reviewed articles.

For researchers in mathematics and physics, the arXiv website hosted by Cornell University has for 25 years been publishing preprint articles uploaded by researchers.

It now boasts more than a million articles, many of which have gone on to be published in mainstream journals, according to a recent article in The Economist.

The biological sciences have been slower to take advantage of the emerging digital possibilities. A similar resource for the life sciences, bioRxiv, was only established in 2013 and currently holds around 3000 articles, The Economist says.

Articles submitted to the site are not peer-reviewed or edited, but do undergo basic screening for plagiarism and offensive or non-scientific content.

Governments and research organisations are pushing to make findings available more widely. Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, for example, has mandated that the findings of any research it funds be openly accessible.

It has also dispensed with the often criticised “journal impact factor” as a measure of the quality of research. The measure sees researchers get extra brownie points for publishing in journals deemed to be high impact, further entrenching the gatekeeper role of those publications and providing a disincentive for researchers to publish more quickly elsewhere.

The recent Zika virus crisis has brought new urgency to discussions about open (and speedy) sharing of research findings.

In February, major journals and health bodies signed a joint statement on data sharing in public health emergencies.

“The arguments for sharing data, and the consequences of not doing so, have been thrown into stark relief by the Ebola and Zika outbreaks … there is an imperative on all parties to make any information available that might have value in combating the crisis,” the statement said.

Journal signatories committed to making their Zika-related content free and said they would not penalise researchers who shared their data during the crisis by ruling them ineligible for later publication.

Does that go far enough?

Professor Stephen Curry, a biologist at Imperial College, London, thinks not, describing the move as “a sticking plaster that does little to assuage the underlying maladies of scientific publication”.

“The real difficulty for the scientific community is that we remain tied to a publishing system that retards the dissemination of information because of its overwhelming preoccupation with using publications to award academic credit,” he writes in a blog post for the Guardian.

“The central problem,” he says, “is that our research ecosystem provides no incentives for publishing reliably, rapidly or openly.”

Initiatives like bioRxiv are trying to change that, but they need a critical mass of researchers to get on board before they will have any real impact.

In the meantime, some scientists are taking matters into their own hands.

In recognition of the Zika crisis, virologist Dr David O’Connor is currently taking the unusual step of sharing daily data online from his study of the virus in pregnant macaque monkeys.

“Never tried sharing data like this before,” said a tweet from his lab at the University of Wisconsin when he started the experiment in February. “Feels like walking into a country for the first time. Exciting, but don’t know what to expect.”

A month on, Dr O’Connor told The Economist the experience of sharing data in this way had been “universally positive”.

Let’s hope that inspires more scientists to adopt the sharing approach.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medical writer.

3 thoughts on “Open access, the modern dilemma

  1. Anthea Krieg says:

    Thank you for writing this, Jane.

    Had I known that our recent MJA article was not to be Open Access, I would not have gone through the very protracted process to get it published in the MJA. As an article about predominantly Aboriginal Health issues, with an indigenous co-author, I thought it was MJA policy for Open Access. Apparently not.

    I’ve decided to go Open Access next time. Of course, this won’t help with getting future financial support for research, but at least I might get to engage with others about the content of the article. 

    regards, A.

    PS. Do you know what the consequences would be of publishing our MJA article on-line on a third-party web-site? Could MJA sue us for breach of copyright?? Is there a precedent for this?

     

  2. cswannell@mja.com.au says:

    Thank you for your comment regarding the MJA’s open access policy. You are correct in saying that articles on Indigenous health were open access. At the moment our open access policy is under review, with all options on the table. If you feel strongly and would like to add to the open access debate currently going on at the MJA, please feel free to write to our new Editor in Chief, Prof Nick Talley (ntalley@mja.com.au). Thank you.

  3. walter davies says:

    As a “citizen scientist” with an early background in zoology my contribution to research in the digestive processes that lead to low methane emissions in kangaroos has been hampered by the prohibitive expense of accessing medical research in closed access journals such as the Medical Journal of Australia. My sole income is the aged pension which I am happy to regard as a government research grant but it does not cover access and publishing costs. My first publication in retirement from science teaching was in a CSIRO journal which I myself cannot legally unless I pay for it or travel to the nearest subscribing university for “walk in access”. Open access would greatly expand the capacity of Australian science for high quality peer reviewed research and increase the support for such research by a more informed Australian community. I urge Prof Nick Talley to allow the general public to freely read the research published in the MJA, which we have largely funded.

       

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