Open for Whom? Equity in Open Knowledge

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Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Those within the academic community will be considering open access over the coming week, Open Access Week. Open access (OA) refers to free, unrestricted online access to research, such as journal articles.

The theme for this year’s Open Access Week is “Open for Whom? Equity in Open Knowledge”, which we believe is particularly relevant to RSTMH’s values and our members, as well as decisions for the future of our two journals.

Ensuring more information is available to the public

One of the most important aspects of the open access movement is around ensuring publicly funded research is available to the public without requiring additional payments (i.e. a subscription).

Awareness of the various aspects of the movement and adoption of certain open access requirements by funders, authors and publishers has picked up hugely over the last decade.

Partly a reaction to high subscription charges levied in the 1990s by large for-profit publishing houses, the movement aims to fully unlock research for the public and involves assessing and creating new models for scholarly publication that focus on widening access and increasing transparency.

Despite widespread adoption of open access, there is still much concern over a lack of transparency and the levels of profit made by larger, more commercial publishers in recent years.

Evolution of “gold” or full open access

Of all the many options, there are two routes of open access most commonly available and preferred. These are usually distinguished as gold (where the research article is made immediately open access via open access publication in a journal) or green (where the research article is published traditionally, but the author self-archives their author accepted manuscript in a freely accessible repository).

Funding bodies such as Wellcome Trust, RCUK, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Science Europe are advocating strongly for research funded by public monies to be available to the public via open access, as are many governments and research institutions internationally. The preferred path for many funders is gold open access, although green may often be required by institutions separately or in addition to this.

The UK Government commissioned an enquiry resulting in a document (The Finch Report) to assess and make recommendations for OA’s adoption into UK Policy, with a focus on setting up funding paths for gold open access. Various other organisations, states and countries began to look at or even immediately implement mandates in favour of gold or green open access.

Experimentation with new models within the movement gave birth to open access “mega journals” such as PLOS One. Moves for greater transparency in the publishing process supported pilot testing of a new honest style of “open review” – one that doesn’t hide the reviewer or author details, as is currently traditional in single- or double-blind reviewing. Journals and funders began to encourage authors to make their data available to further support their publications (Open Data).

Hybrid model

When journals began to consider how to best offer open access requirements, it quickly became clear that this was very complex. While various options were considered, most publishers moved quickly to establish “hybrid” journals. This allowed journals to add open access articles into their current traditional subscription-based article publishing processes, in order to meet demand for OA while protecting traditional subscription revenues.

These conversations discussed fairness of open access, for multiple stakeholders – authors, publishers, institutions, the general public, shareholders and more. Many of these discussions are still hotly debated and reflected in the theme for this year’s Open Access Week.

Open access, Societies and academic research

Alongside this complex drive for change, international discussions have been integral in assessing the sustainability of various newly proposed publishing models and impact of potential implementation.

Societies have been founded around the creation of their journals. Ground-breaking research has been communicated globally through published articles, saving lives and helping communities and governments be better informed. For RSTMH our first journal (founded in 1907) Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, has announced new diseases such as Zika and Chikungunya (in papers by Robinson and Lumsden) and ground-breaking research such as the use of insecticide treated bed nets for malaria control.

Societies publish research through different publishing models, often self-publishing, as RSTMH used to do, or through partnership with a range of publishing houses, including commercial and not for profit.  RSTMH works with Oxford University Press (OUP), a not-for-profit publishing house, to publish Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene and International Health.

Societies also rely on revenue from their journals for a high proportion of their income. For RSTMH, combined returns from journals represents around 43% of our total income, with any profits being used to deliver our charitable activities in tropical medicine and global health.

It is worth noting that the income provided to Oxford University Press as payment for their partnership in publishing our journals represents around a third of the amount which we would need to spend in order to publish ourselves.

The importance of deciding to keep a journal on the subscription model, adapt it into a hybrid (more on this below) or “flip” a journal to only publish through open access is therefore a critical decision for societies.

Open Access Week

In this blog post written around the theme of Open Access Week, Director of Programs & Engagement for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) Nick Shockey considers:

“Whose interests are being prioritized in the actions we take and in the platforms that we support? Whose voices are excluded? Are underrepresented groups included as full partners from the beginning? Are we supporting not only open access but also equitable participation in research communication?”

These are questions that we have considered ourselves this year. RSTMH members and friends will be aware that International Health is moving to full open access from January 2020, while Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene remains a hybrid journal.

Equity was a key part of this decision, as our Chief Executive, Tamar Ghosh, notes below:

“In 2018, we asked for our members’ views on open access and our journals, as funders are increasingly mandating open access and we have seen a growing number of authors choosing this option in recent years, particularly for International Health.

“Much of the research we publish takes place in low- and middle-income countries and by moving to an open access model, we hope to remove any potential barrier to this research being published so that researchers in these countries can access the articles

“We are aware of some concerns about article processing charges, particularly for early career researchers, those with low-income who are not in countries that attract waivers, students, retired people and those not being funded through public money such as those working in NGOs. We are keen to ensure that we are still able to see a diverse range of research coming through the journals. We continue to work with our publisher to ensure as many researchers as possible are able to publish with us.”

Open access and RSTMH membership

RSTMH members will be eligible for a 5% (£100) discount on the article processing charge (APC) when publishing in International Health.

Our members will still be able to access International Health online but will no longer be able to opt to receive print issues as the journal will also become online-only as part of RSTMH’s environmental initiatives.

We will continue to monitor funder mandates and the welcome feedback from our members on open access, particularly from early career researchers as we would like to know how we can better support them in publishing.

A full list of countries where an APC waiver is available.

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