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Open Access (22)

1 August, 2019

Dear all – I worked for many years as an academic librarian (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and am now working for 3ie (International Initiative for Impact Evaluation), WHO and other organisations assisting with systematic reviews and evidence gap maps. I also have extensive experience over the last 20 years in teaching on mainly public health programmes in many African countries, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and so on. Over all my working life closed access to research publications has been a major barrier to knowledge dissemination, especially, but not exclusively so, in LMICs.

For 6 years I worked on a wonderful African public health PhD programme called CARTA (Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa – cartafrica.org), involving universities and research institutes. Most of the students were university faculty members and so had access to some library resources and most had access to WHO’s Hinari programme (https://www.who.int/hinari/en/ ) which currently gives access to 15000 biomedical journals and some databases for about 120 countries; some countries such as India and South Africa are excluded. This is a superb resource and has done much to mitigate the effects of closed access to health literature, but access to it requires affiliation to a registered institution, usually a university or research institute, so most health personnel in LMICs are disenfranchised.

As has been shown in Catriona’s excellent briefing paper on OA, much has been achieved in advancing the cause of OA but there is still a way to go, and I still receive requests from colleagues overseas for articles. So what more can be done?

I believe that the knowledge creators and their funders – authors, universities, research organisations – could do more to ensure that they retain copyright and hold copies (after peer-review) of papers as OA. Many universities have open archives of papers but these are often difficult to identify and use. Is there a worldwide central repository of this material? Some universities I understand have forbidden staff from assigning copyright to journals where it rightfully belongs to the university, and we know that some funders , eg the US NIH, the Wellcome Trust, UK’s Medical Research Council, ask that papers resulting from funds they have provided are made available OA. This is right and proper – and does it still need stating that all publicly-funded health research should remain in the public domain for all to use – especially for those in LMICs most in need?

I'm not especially interested in the gold, bronze definitions of OA – I suspect that's a Western construct which most in LMICs won't care about - so long as they and others who are disadvantaged can get access to full-text when they need it. It's still a huge struggle for many.

Way back in 2002 I wrote an editorial in Tropical Medicine & International Health (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1365-3156.2002.00918.x ) on this topic. Some of what I said then is now old-hat but there are some comments which I believe are still valid. So to put the cat among the pigeons and perhaps be iconoclastic, is it appropriate that the publication of publicly-funded health research is still largely in the hands of commercial publishers? Should alternative non-profit organisations be mainly responsible for publication? Of course there will be questions, as there already have been on this forum, of how all this is to be paid for which I believe can be resolved, but the fundamental principle of health research funded out of the public purse remaining free for all to access is unanswerable.

HIFA profile: John Eyers is providing expert advice on literature search for HIFA Citations. He is a retired librarian (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) with an interest in health information in the developing world. He has run information workshops in Africa and Asia over the last few years and is currently Trials Search Co-ordinator of 3ie (International Initiative for Impact Evaluation) which funds impact evaluations and systematic reviews that generate evidence on what works in development programmes and why. johneyers AT hotmail.com