HIFA Blog: Month in Review, April 2018 - Open access

9 June, 2018

Quote of the month: “If Sci-Hub is wrong, then so are these greedy publishers. Unless someone comes up with a viable solution to this problem of restricted access to research Sci-Hub is going to stay and flourish.” (HIFA member Farooq Rathore is a consultant and assistant professor in Rehabilitation Medicine at the CMH Lahore Medical College, Lahore, Pakistan)

Originally adopted by the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), ‘Open Access’ is a term conceived to promote the idea of research being made freely available on the Internet. After well over a decade of debate about how OA could work in practice, a growing number of publishers in rich countries are now opting to ‘flip’ their journals from restricted access (RA) to open access (OA), or hybrid (part RA, part OA). As a result, the OA2020 initiative has been established, a global alliance of libraries, universities and other institutions around the world, committed to accelerating the transition to OA. The frustration of finding the abstract for that all-important case study only to click through to find a paywall looks set to be a thing of the past.

“The situation was good for authors - who simply had to write well - and bad for librarians and readers, who had to find the money to buy the [RA] content”. This was how Chris Zielinski (HIFA member, UK) summed up for HIFA members what he called “the bad old days before open access”, a scenario now being completely reversed by OA. As Chris puts it, “librarians and readers bask in an avalanche of cost-free online papers, while authors are scrambling to find the resources to pay for publication”. The article-processing charges (APCs) imposed on authors certainly aren’t cheap - from $100 to over $3,000 a paper. Some journals offer waivers to researchers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Nevertheless, many researchers based in LMICs have reason to fear that the door to publishing in international journals is closing to them.

Yet there may be cause for optimism. “At The Lancet Global Health”, Zoe Mullan (HIFA member, UK) told the HIFA forum, “we assume that this cost [the APC] will be borne by the funding body, since it is these bodies who have largely driven the open access mandate in recent years”. Zoe added that The Lancet had been implementing this model for five years. We do not charge anything for authors whose funding has come from a low-income country or if there is absolutely no funding at all. This commitment to offset the financial burden on authors is reflected across the OA community: as of 5 June 2018, 73% of the 11,000+ OA journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals charge authors nothing to publish their work (https://bit.ly/1s9wniA). Many are able to do so by adopting a variety of business models, for example, Chris Zielinski cited the example of journals funding their free online content from sales of their print version.

Despite this, a number of researchers, particularly those based in LMICs, have turned away from OA following bad experiences with publishers that do levy the APC. Farooq Rathore (HIFA member, Pakistan) is one of them. “I deliberately avoid OA as they charge 500-1000 USD”, he told HIFA members, adding that, whilst several OA publishers offered a waiver of 50%, the discounted total still equated to 25% of his monthly income. They refused to offer a further reduction despite his repeated requests.

It’s not difficult therefore to appreciate why Farooq and his LMIC colleagues may perceive OA as exclusive and financially unjustifiable. As Chris Zielinski told HIFA members, ‘pro-researcher’ business models like that of The Lancet are “more likely to exist in industrialised countries, where basic research is carried out more frequently and regularly attracts funding”. Chris also expressed concern that the economic model of OA may be blocking the availability of local research carried out in LMICs, where the focus is on health services and health systems and is undertaken by local institutions. “This research needs to be published internationally, not just locally,” Chris told HIFA members, “in order to attract opinions, input and (in some cases) validation and consensus from the global health community”.

Indeed, making local research globally available also has other benefits. Jamie Guth (HIFA member, Switzerland) told the HIFA forum how a group of institutions has initiated tracking of malaria funding in "research for implementation," which covers implementation research, operational research and health systems research. For the first time, data on research for implementation funding was combined with what has already been reported for basic research and product development. As Jamie explained, the project is about ‘following the money’ – tracking research funding patterns can highlight priorities and gaps. The preliminary report can be found here

What does the future hold for the restricted-access (RA) journals which have yet to make the flip to OA? Indeed, given the choice, why do some researchers continue to submit papers to RA journals? The latter is a question which Joseph Ana (HIFA member, Nigeria) has been asking for some time, particularly as some RA research papers are not even prefaced by an abstract, leaving the potential purchaser none the wiser as to their content. It’s certainly true that RA journals can and do still demonstrate consistently high-impact factors, but OA publications are steadily increasing their readership and citation rates, and may yet match and perhaps overtake their RA counterparts.

The main reason many authors do not submit to OA journals is perceived cost (although most OA journals do not have APCs), but another important reason is the failure of academic institutions to give due recognition to OA journals. As Najeeb Al-Shorbaji (HIFA member, Jordan) told the forum, "I hear from colleagues that to get a promotion, they have to publish x number of articles in journals that are listed in that university".  OA journals are often excluded from these lists and must therefore overcome a challenge which Najeeb defines as follows: "how to convince those who are in charge of academic promotions in universities that OA journals are as good, if not better, than the 'commercial' journals".

In the meantime, it is increasingly clear that cash-strapped students and researchers will go to any lengths to access the research they need, even if they risk breaking the law. The Sci-Hub website currently offers “67 million academic papers and articles available for direct download. It bypasses publisher paywalls by allowing access through educational institution proxies”. Sci-Hub users can be found on every continent except Antarctica and they made 28 million download requests from all regions of the world between September 2015 and February 2016.

Metrics: In April 2018 we exchanged 296 messages from 130 contributors in 32 countries (Bangladesh, Belgium, Cameroon, Canada, Denmark, DR Congo, Germany, Ghana, Honduras, India, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Switzerland, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, UK, United Arab Emirates, USA, Zambia, Zimbabwe). Our top contributors were Joseph Ana, Nigeria (17) and Shabina Hussain, USA (16). Thank you all for sharing your views and your experience.

Martin Carroll was previously Head of the International Department at the British Medical Association, London UK, and has worked on issues affecting health in LMICs since 2003. He represented the BMA on the HIFA Steering Group from 2008-16 and is now an independent HIFA Steering Group member.   Martin is a member of three HIFA working groups: Multilingualism, Evaluating the Impact of Healthcare Information, and Social Media. He is also the HIFA blogger. Twitter: @MMCarroll