By Rebecca Goulding and Goldis Chami
As global health researchers, the process of accessing the findings of others is a crucial part of the work that we do. It allows us to review and criticize scientific knowledge, and to build on the work of others.
You could say that scientific progress relies on the ability for researchers to access the work of others and to build on it—otherwise, we would be working from scratch. Health science researchers comb the table of contents of their favored journals on a weekly basis, in hopes of coming across captivating nuggets of information that may be relevant to their own work.
Most researchers receiving funding from public institutions such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) or the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council go on to submit their findings in the form of articles to journals that use a peer-review process to select the best and most compelling work.
Peer-review is a long and challenging period of criticism and scrutiny carried out by experts in a field. Reviewers assess articles for legitimacy and strive to ensure that the authors are not making irrelevant or unacceptable claims. The peer review process is essentially the cornerstone of scientific research, and a journal's reputation is directly dependent on it.
Once an article is accepted, it is then published in both the print version of the journal and on-line (although many journals are now published exclusively on-line). Depending on the calibre of journal, the author will gain notoreity and respect as a result. On the other end of the publication equation, only those who can obtain access to this article can learn from it.
Traditionally, publishing groups have retained ownership of the copyright associated with academic articles, and have therefore controlled the rights to distribution. The publication process requires considerable financial investment, and many publishers’ business models recoup this cost by selling access to the scientific work that they publish to individuals or academic institutions. On-line, articles cost on average $30 each, unless you have access through another source such as a university library. The cost to univeristy libraries can be enormous: University of British Columbia subscribes to 65,341 journals, at a cost of approximately $9 million per year.
In addition to recouping costs through journal subscription fees, some journals ask article authors to pay "page fees" to further offset publishing costs. The point is that somebody has to pay for the cost associated with the rigorous peer review process and publication of scientific research results.
In the last decade, a new generation of publications, known as open access (OA) journals, have turned the traditional publishing business model on its head. They have done this by providing access to their content for free on-line. For low-middle income countries, this has been an extremely important shift, as institutional access is severely limited in these countries.
Some publishers, such as Nature Publishing Group, have opened up access to many of their biomedical journals in developing countries. In parallel with this trend, several research-funding institutions have also developed open access guidelines.
Last year, CIHR implemented a policy to ensure that, starting January 1, 2008, all findings that result from the research it funds are made available to the public through an open access archive or through publication in an open access journal. In April 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the largest granting agencies for health research in the United States, followed suit. Many universities have also decided to push for open access to research that is done on their campuses.
In February 2008, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences unanimously voted for open access distribution of articles. MIT, Cornell, Dartmouth, and University of California, Berkeley, have also pledged to go open access. On our side of the border, Wilfrid Laurier University has launched an institutional open access respository in an effort to, “significantly increase access to Laurier’s scholarly information”.
There are many questions about this new way of publishing: Are OA journals gaining acceptance and respect, and are we only at the tip of the iceberg of this open access revolution? The sheer number of open access journals (4,200 in total) seems to suggest that this is the case. Some of these journals are among the most respected scientfic journals in publication.
Are OA journals financially sustainable? OA journals have different business models which often involve higher “page fees”; in many cases, the author pays. Whatever the model, at some point someone has to pay for publishing costs. To address this, perhaps governments and universities should put together ”˜publication funds’ to encourage researchers to publish in open access journals. Those without such funding (i.e. researchers from developing countries), could be offered lower or waived page fees by journal publishers.
The unprecedented growth in OA journals and commitment to OA by government funding agencies heralds a new era in health science research. The more global health researchers insist on publishing OA, the more OA will grow. The fact is that open acesss opens up research findings to all, especially to those who can least afford to pay for it.
Rebecca Goulding is a postdoctoral fellow with the Open Health Initiative at the Centre for Sustainability and Social Innovation, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.
Goldis Chami is a medical student at the University of British Columbia.