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The Public’s Perspective: the Importance of Open Access Publishing

Title: Open to the public: paywalls and the public rationale for open access medical research publishing

Author(s) and Year: Suzanne Day et al. 2020

TL;DR: This article explores the importance of open access publishing to the public because of their roles in further medical research as funders, advocates, research participants, and patients.

Why I chose this paper: Open access publishing is an important tool used for the distribution of knowledge to the public. Paywalls can often hinder accessibility of research findings, ensuring certain knowledge is only available to those who can afford it. This paper takes on a super interesting approach: examining the open access debate from a public perspective.

Open access publishing is a publishing model that supports the free distribution of research findings without the need for payment. Paywalls continue to represent a considerable barrier to free access to medical knowledge and remain extremely common in medical research – it is estimated that only 28% of all scholarly publications are currently open access. Paywalls not only impact the ability of researchers to access information and prevent researchers from having their work widely viewed, paywalls also exacerbate the inequalities in scholarly resources, and raise challenging ethical questions about a for-profit approach to knowledge acquisition.

Publishing journals’ resistance to open access medical research stems from academic research being a highly profitable business. In 2017 alone, revenues for English-language science, technology, and medical publishing journals were estimated to pull in USD $10 billion of profit. In the absence of universal open access publishing, one’s ability to obtain the latest advancements in any field of study depends on their institutions’ capability of paying for expensive journal subscriptions - a financial burden that can be felt even across large, well-funded institutions.

This commentary explores the importance of open access medical research in particular, and refocuses the open access debate from a public perspective.

The Details

To date, not many people have considered the need for open access medical research. Previous research involving Dutch laypeople and UK medical charities have hinted that non-academics both prefer and make use of open access medical research when it is available. This evidence supports the presence of a public interest in open access of medical research. The authors further explore the role of the public as funders, advocates, research participants, and patients, and make key arguments as to why public access is a major positive of open access.

The public is often involved in either directly (e.g., crowdfunding) or indirectly (e.g., taxes) funding a substantial portion of medical research. With this financial support, there is an obligation to disseminate research results back to the paying public. While certain government funders require open access publishing as a condition of receiving grants, these requirements are not yet universal. Sharing research results provides an opportunity for the public to understand the impact of public money on advancing research, and provides transparency and accountability for the use of these public funds.

Open access publishing also supports public access to academic publishings that may be relevant for lobbying for policy changes and research fundings, as well as identifying potential research harms. This concern extends not only to publicly-funded medical research, but also privately-funded medical industry research: for example, the results of drug trials funded by pharmaceutical companies in their assessment of new medical technologies.

Research participants donate their time and energy to studies, often with the assumption that they are contributing to generalizable knowledge. Paywalls can bar research participants from accessing information about clinical trials that were only made possible from the contribution of their time and efforts, and even wear down the trust in medical research and willingness to participate in future studies.

Lastly, it is important to not forget that members of the public can take an interest in expanding open access to medical research because of their own role, at times, as patients. The public has a strong preference for accessing health information themselves through the internet: in fact, conducting an internet search for health-related information has become one of the first recognized steps in accessing health care. For certain complex or uncommon health conditions, limiting the public access of relevant medical research can further the knowledge gap of affected persons and their health conditions.

The Impact

While it is important to recognize that paywalls may be used to address necessary and unavoidable costs associated with academic publishing (e.g., editorial processes, production staffing, etc.) – paywalls often serve as an obstacle to the free distribution of research findings to the public. It is important for science communicator practitioners to keep in mind the accessibility of the sources used in their communications. An academic publishing system that outputs research behind paywalls conflicts with values of accountability, transparency, and scientific knowledge as a common good. The public plays a role as funders, advocates, research participants, and patients, and conversations about open access publishing in research should emphasize the benefits and responsibilities of furthering public engagement in research.

Edited by Kay McCallum and Niveen AbiGhannam

Cover image credit: CC By 4.0.


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