Looking for equality in open access

The theme of this year’s Open Access Week is ‘designing equitable foundations for open knowledge’. Here Crick PhD student Thomas Wilson explores how open access publishing can make knowledge more equitable and inclusive, but is still far from having the global reach it needs. 

I believe that science should always be equal, inclusive and open. That’s why I’m one of the Crick’s new Open Advocates: a group for raising awareness and helping scientists here to do open and collaborative science, and help make it the norm for scientific research.

At the Crick, we’re privileged to have access to the kind of funding we need to do ground-breaking research. Through core funding and grant money, we have the materials we need to conduct our work.

This means it’s relatively easy for us to access the research of others via the institute’s journal subscriptions, and we can ensure that our research is published openly by paying the article processing charges necessary to ensure that research is open from the minute it’s published. 

But other scientists don’t have the resources that we have. At institutions where funding and resources are limited - particularly in the developing world -  being able to access papers and research materials freely, and publish in the best place for your research, is critical. 

Frank Norman, Head of Library and Information Services, has previously given his perspective on why open access makes sense for the Crick. 

So how can open access publishing help to make global science more equal and inclusive? 

Why the world needs open access publishing

I spoke to Marina Romanello, a postdoc in my lab (Paola Scaffidi’s group), who grew up and began her scientific career in Argentina. She described to me how important open access had been to her work.

“Without open access, you don’t have access to a lot of research papers, so you have to get papers through informal means or not at all. You can’t keep up to date, and without access to papers you can’t do research.”

Marina also explained how excluded she felt to be unable to access the work of her international peers.

“It cuts you out of the scientific community in many ways.”

This ‘knowledge gap’ is a real challenge. Some charitable organisations exist to help, such as research4life, which provides researchers in developing countries with free access to published literature. But because Argentina is not classed as a developing country, its researchers are not eligible for access, highlighting the difficulties of a pay-for-access system. 

Open access publishing breaks down these boundaries, forging one global community. And by making research available to anyone, anywhere, we can distribute knowledge more equally.

I also discussed the importance of open access with Jenny Wilson, programme manager of the Crick African Network (CAN). 

Their mission is to help foster the next generation of African research leaders through partnered training and mentorship at the Crick and at local institutes. The aim is to enable scientists to develop their own solutions to local research questions. 

Jenny sees open access publishing as an integral part of this. And by publishing their research under open access terms, African researchers can also highlight the contribution their research makes to global challenges.

The challenges of open access

But current open access structures are not as equitable as they could be.

For example, many journals (including both purely open access journals and hybrid subscription journals) charge to publish an article openly. Typical fees are $1000 to $3000 but can be up to $5000 for one article at the most expensive end. This can exclude research groups without access to funding, as demonstrated in a recent study published in the journal PeerJ. This found that researchers at higher-ranked, better-resourced institutes were more likely to publish in open access journals with processing charges, creating a new hierarchy between those who can afford to be open, and those who can’t. 

If open access articles are likely to reach a wider audience than paywalled ones, high APCs can serve to amplify the output of researchers at privileged institutions. 

For Marina, this was a big consideration during her research. “You can’t pay the fees, so the distribution of your paper is limited. You can’t get the visibility.” 

Looking to the future

With our policy of supporting open access, the Crick hopes to be a world leader in the push towards a more open scientific future. But there’s still a lot to do.

Our newly formed group of open advocates is starting to consider how we can make Crick science open and equitable. We’re promoting preprints – where research results are published before peer review - and helping to address some common reservations. We’re assisting colleagues with making their data and resources fully accessible. And we’re also discussing new policies on open access from our funding bodies, including Plan S, and how they will affect research at the Crick.

Through inclusive discussions, we hope to develop new ways to share our discoveries without boundaries. 

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