What does it mean for academic papers to be available freely?


To me? A great deal. In December I started to work in independent practice and in December, for the first time in  many years I lost the ability to access freely academic journals. An interesting position to be in and one experienced by the majority of healthcare professionals working outside of academia or the NHS. Even within the NHS reduced  access is a frustration for healthcare professionals who, on completion of postgraduate studies linked with a University, are more limited in what they can access.

Therefore it was with real interest that I followed up a number of tweets last week about Sci-Hub which was established in 2011 and, until now, has passed me by completely. What follows is a precis of the story published in sciencealert.com, and bigthink.com.  Sci-Hub was created by Russian neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan as a consequence of her frustration at her inability to access articles without having to pay. Does this resonate with you? You find an abstract that looks promising, follow the link and are met with a request for payment?

Here is something I have been reflecting on prompted by this story. I was looking for a paper last week and to access it for 24 hours would have cost me $40 (£27.57p). Now here’s the thing – I receive fairly regular request from said journal to carry out article reviews. I am required to do this free of charge within 10 working days. During those 10 days I receive reminders of the approaching deadline and if I miss it I receive an email pointing out how I am holding up the review process. If I decline to undertake the review I am automatically directed to a webpage asking me to suggest alternative reviewers from my professional network. Hmmm.

Alexandra Elbakyan moved way beyond my frustration and established what is in effect a pirate repository of over 48 million journal articles. How does it work? You type in the URL of the paper you are seeking and the full text of the paper appears – it works I searched for one of my papers and the full text was there in seconds.

Behind the scenes your request is first routed to similar pirate site LibGen and if they don’t have it… well you know you are told to never share logins or password – anonymous academics have donated theirs to Sci-Hub enabling it to access journals that otherwise sit behind paywalls. The neat thing is that if it accesses a paper in this way Sci-hub then sends a copy of the paper to LibGen to increase their repository.

Needless to say Alexandra Elbankyan is the subject to a law suit  in the US brought by Elsevier and was ordered to close the site down in December. However it is still up and running. In fighting the injunction Alexandra has cited article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which states that: ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.

The points made in her letter to the judge in her defence are really worth reading. Having published in academic journals, chaired an editorial board of a professional journal and published books I understand the different perspectives. However it is my current position of being effectively locked out of the world of academic publishing that makes me cheer for the tenacity of Alexandra Elbankyan and what she is fighting for – the democratisation of knowledge.

Some of the greatest beneficiaries of this fight will be people in developing countries but a thought I will share which is closer to home and focused on practice rather than academic publishing- if we are committed to evidence informed practice and the rapid translation of research into practice what will happen within an increasingly fragmented health economy where no one working in the independent or voluntary sectors, like me, has access to the evidence?

The photo used in this post was taken by Aleski Tappura and downloaded from Unsplash.com



How open are you as a researcher?

Autumnal view over Ulswater in Cumbria

Autumnal view over Ulswater in Cumbria

This week I have been on a voyage of discovery around the world via International Open Access Week. Having never heard about this designated week, before but thinking a lot about the principle of open access lately, I started to explore further and thought I’d share some of my discoveries.

Firstly about Open Access Week itself which is now in its 8th year and which aims to, ‘inspire wider academic participation in helping make open access a new norm for scholarship and research’. The week is organised by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication. 

If you are new to the concept of open access publishing and would like to find out a bit more about it Wikipedia provides a good introduction. A range of resources about open access publishing can also be accessed via the Open Access Week website including a great animation produced by Nick Shockey and Jonathan Eisen.

If you have ever conducted a preliminary literature search online you will almost certainly have come across open access publishing and, probably like me, given thanks for being able to access full text articles without needing an institutional subscription to a search engine or having pay to download a paper in the hope that the content lives up to the abstract.

There are a number of ways in which open access papers are made available: via open access publishers such as BioMedCentral who publish over 290 peer-reviewed  journals, such as Research Involvement and Engagement and Health and Quality of Life Outcomes; through repositories such as Europe PubMed Central; through the more traditional subscription journals many of whom now provide an open access facility for authors wishing to or needing to make their paper freely available.

If you are wondering about the funding model for open access publishing there are a number of models but I guess the most common is that of an article processing cost which is usually paid by the author or their institution. To give you an example, at the time of writing this post, Biomed Central’s charge for an article submitted to Research Involvement and Engagement is £1565. So this is by no means a free service but a very different model founded on the principle of making the outputs of research freely available to all readers as quickly as possible.

The Wellcome Trust published a blog to coincide with Open Access Week, 10 years of Open Access at the Wellcome Trust in 10 numbers, which gives an interesting insight into open access from the perspective of a major funding body.  One of the ‘numbers’ states that 20% of articles authored by UK researchers and published in the last 2 years were freely accessible upon publication. It will be great to see that figure increase over the coming years.

Whist the focus of the week has been predominantly on open access publishing the concept has been taken further by Vitae who throughout the week have been  promoting the concept of ‘open researchers’ defined by them as individuals with, ‘the knowledge and skills to work effectively in an open research environment…… able to maximise the benefits of open research for their work and the benefits for their careers.’

Some of the skills and expertise associated with open researchers are:

  • Making research data open and accessible
  • Being skilled in finding and using data generated by others
  • Understanding the legal and ethical requirements related to dissemination of research outputs
  • Knowing the requirements of your institution/funder for making research open
  • Being familiar with where and how to publish results openly
  • Being skilled in trawling the expanding pool of publications to find relevant research outputs
  • Exploring opportunities for engaging end users in conducting research
  • Meeting expectations for communicating research through public engagement
  • Building networks of potential collaborators and taking advantage of opportunities to work across disciplinary or sector boundaries
  • Being able to use the appropriate technology and engage with appropriate service providers to make research open
  • Generating an effective online profile as a researcher
  • Understanding how reputation and reward can happen for individuals in an open research environment.

As you can see from the above being an open researcher isn’t just about committing to open access publishing it is so much more.

So a lot to ponder about open access at the end of a week of discovery, some challenges to contemplate and horizons expanded.