Research Funded by the UK Taxpayer Should be Published in Open Access Journals


Friday, September 18th, 2009. 2:48pm


Typical paywall encoutered by those trying to access the results of research funded by UK Taxpayers

Results published on the 9th of September 2009 from the European Youth Heart Study (EYHS), by the Medical Research Council in Cambridge are not openly available.

The UK public fund a large amount of scientific research, both though the research councils and via scientific work conducted by public bodies. Many results of publicly funded research are inaccessible to the vast majority of those who could make use of and build on it. Removing restrictions on sharing and accessing the journal articles which are a key output from much scientific work is an area where a simple change in policy could result in research results becoming much more accessible and having a greater impact on society.

Publicly funded scientists in the UK are currently allowed to publish their work in journals which then charge those wishing to access the articles. The public ends up paying both for the work to be conducted and then again to access the results. UK universities spend many millions of pounds every year on access to research publications which were produced by the universities themselves. This makes little sense as in many cases the publishers essentially take a document from a researcher, host it online, and charge those wishing to download it. The UK Government has given, and continues to give, scientific publishers a license to print money.

I think that the government should insist that the results of publicly funded research are made freely available; I think this would:

  • Reduce costs to universities, giving them funds to spend elsewhere.
  • Increase the effectiveness of the UKs research funding.
  • Improve healthcare provision as doctors and other working in the medical sector gain access to more research results and more evidence on which to base their decisions.
  • Boost the economy as companies as well as academics would have greater able to access to research outputs.
  • Breakdown some of the barriers to participation in science in the UK help tackle nepotism, favoritism and cronyism and introduce meritocracy.
  • Make it easier to assess the value of scientific research and make funding decisions.

There have been many announcements from government expressing an intent to go down the open access publishing route; but in my view little is actually changing, and the change there has been is occurring slowly. I think there is need for clear leadership from Parliament on this and believe the UK scientific, engineering, medical and other research communities would benefit enormously from a straightforward requirement for unrestricted, open access, distribution of research results.

Peer Review and Editorial Boards – Adding Value?

Some argue that publishers add value; one of the key arguments used in defence of the current system is the defence of “peer review”. This is the process where a submitted paper is passed to other scientists who are asked for their opinion on aspects such as how interesting the work is, how well it has been carried out, how appropriate it is for a particular journal and if it has been conducted in a scientifically rigorous manner. By asking scientists to do this work, typically for free, publishers get much of the work they are doing in terms of selecting content for their publications done for them at no cost. Peer review is a good concept, and independent comments often result in improvements to the research being adopted prior to publication. This is a good thing.

The best journals pass articles anonymously to carefully selected experts in specific fields for review. More common though among the vast majority of publications is to simply ask the submitting author for “suggestions” of who could review the paper and for it to simply be passed on with no regard to anonymity. Ideally a peer reviewer would not know who a piece of research they were reviewing had been authored by, to illuminate bias and favouritism. I have been at a scientific meeting where those present in a lecture hall were asked who had been given a non-anonymised research article to peer review and about nine out of ten hands went up. In practice peer review isn’t all its cracked up to be. After peer review the next step is approval by the editorial board of a journal; typically those working in a particular field will know individuals on boards of journals and will be on such boards themselves. In my experience there is a culture of exchanging favours for friends at this step too. When I have discussed open access publishing with senior academics I have been told a motivation for not following that route is an assurance that they will be published in a hassle free manner by those they know on the editorial board of a particular publication.

While the underlying process of “peer review” is worth retaining, the problem is that the current system of its operation has become sacrosanct among the scientific establishment. I think current system could easily be superseded by a more open publication system which allowed comments and suggested improvements from all with something to contribute. I think that traditional journals’ other role of identifying and classifying research results so as to make them easy to locate has been superseded by online technology. It is now easier to apply more meritocratic measures of a publication’s value than merely if it has been accepted for publication by a “highly respected” journal, one can look at where it has been cited and if valuable further work builds on its results for example.

Publication Ethics

Whatever the system it will inevitably be played by those trying to make the most out of the system such as career scientists. There are perceived benefits to having a large number of publications to someone’s name so it is common practice for people to exchange “co-authorship” on papers even if they have had no or little involvement in the work. (I’ve seen situations where junior individuals who actually did the work don’t get mentioned as the group leader has already got enough names of authors once all their scientific colleagues they owe favors too have been listed!) We need our scientists to behave ethically, more transparency and openness resulting from a reformed publication system would I believe be a strong driving force which would encourage that.

Access to Journals at the University of Cambridge

When came to Cambridge University in 2001 I found that access to scientific journals was much more restricted than it had been at my previous university – Imperial College London. It was not until 2006 when the University of Cambridge received £400,000 from the Science Research Infrastructure Fund (SRIF) which it spent with publishing company Elsevier that the situation really began to improve. This illustrates the problems faced in accessing information by one of the top research universities in the world in accessing information; things are much worse in poorer institutions. With open access publishing these costs and inequities disappear.

Publishing companies are in a position where they are able to hold institutions to ransom. It was not just Elsevier but many publishers, including Nature and the IEEE that Cambridge University had inadequate arrangements for access to journals from just a few years ago. One reason the situation has improved is that prices charged by publishers are dropping for example the IEEE currently charges institutions $43,995 for access to its journal package, in 2005 it charged $80,000. Even if prices were to half again I think the arguments for unrestricted, open access, publishing would still be valid. Slashing prices and offering schemes such as charging only for articles in the first three or six months after publication show that publishers are responding to public policy, but also that they are taking drastic steps to try and maintain their position, our political leaders should not be duped by them.

An Example – Accessing EPSRC Funded Research Today

Recently, through my voluntary work on mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com I came across someone making a freedom of information request for some scientific research results. The request had been made to The Forestry Commission, which is the government department responsible for the UK’s woodlands. The work had been led by the government department, carried out in collaboration with UK universities, and largely funded by public money distributed via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

WhatDoTheyKnow user Simon Birkett had asked about work relating to pollutants and urban greenspace in London The response stated that the results had been published in a scientific paper. That paper entitled An integrated tool to assess the role of new planting in PM10 capture and the human health benefits: A case study in London has been published in the October 2009 edition of Elsevier Ltd.’s Environmental Pollution journal. While a member of Forestry Commission staff has offered to send a copy of the paper by post to the requestor they have not released the information to everyone via WhatDoTheyKnow presumably as doing so would presumably be a breach of the copyright in the work which they have probably handed over to the publishing company. The publishing company offer a A PDF version of the publication for $31.50 via their website.

I decided to ask Tony Hutchings, the Forestry Commission’s Head of Land Regeneration and Urban Greenspace who led the research why he decided to not to publish the work in a more accessible manner he wrote back to me stating:

The work was predominantly funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The work was published in a high quality, good impact, peer review journal. The Research Councils (as do many funders from both private industry and public bodies) assess the quality of the research undertaken by the impact factors of the papers produced. Through your research background and publication record you might be aware that this impact factor is assessed on the number of citations to papers within the journal normally over a 2 year period. To my knowledge there are unfortunately few open access journals with high impact factors.

The fact that this research was published in this manner and predominantly funded by a research council is interesting as the research councils, nominally at least, have policies promoting open access to research publications deriving from work they fund. Personally I have seen little impact of this supposed policy as publicly funded science has continued to be given to publishing companies to profit from since it was adopted. The EPSRC’s “Policy on Access to Research Outputs” states:

“We remain strongly committed to the principles outlined in the Research Councils UK position statement on access to research outputs issued in June 2005. This says that knowledge derived from publicly-funded research must be made available and accessible for public use; must be subject to rigorous quality assurance through peer review; must be preserved and remain accessible for future generations and this must be done in a cost effective way.”

I wrote to Dr Sue Smart the EPSRC’s Head of Performance and Evaluation who is responsible for the policy to ask for her comments on the publishing decision made by the Forestry Commission. She replied to say:

We believe that our researchers should be able to choose the most appropriate publication routes, which may be via subscription journals (in which case we would expect them to make their article available through an institutional or subject-based repository as well – ie the so-called ‘green’ option), or via publication in open-access journals (the ‘gold’ option). This mandate will be introduced in the next 6-9 months but will not be applied retrospectively. We recognise that the choice of publication journal is highly significant to researchers and would not wish to bar them from publishing in the most highly esteemed volumes.

Yet again another promise of “jam tomorrow”, perhaps another small step forward will take place in 6-9 months, but there is no reason the general problem could not be tackled today. Dr Smart’s response also highlighted what I believe is a major problem, assumptions by researchers that people, especially those involved in funding and employment decisions rely on metrics such as “journal impact factors”. Dr Smart wrote:

I’m afraid Tony Hutchings is mistaken in his assertion that we use journal impact factors in assessing the quality of research. It is true that we do use bibliometric analyses as an input to our International Reviews and as an input to internal policy discussions regarding strengths and weaknesses of the research base, but we do not focus on journal impact factors in any of these analyses and certainly not in assessing the quality of individual research projects.

The EPSRC also stated that the Forestry Commission’s offer of a paper copy of the research article was: “in keeping with the principles of the RCUK position statement.”

See also:

20 comments/updates on “Research Funded by the UK Taxpayer Should be Published in Open Access Journals

  1. Stevan Harnad

    WHY “PUBLISHED IN OA JOURNALS” RATHER THAN JUST OA?

    Here we see again the main reason OA is so slow in coming: The conflation of OA with publishing in OA journals (Gold OA), leaving out the most powerful, fastest and surest way of providing OA, which is to publish in any journal you like, and to make the article OA by self-archiving it free for all online (Green OA).

    See: http://bit.ly/3JyQB

    Stevan Harnad
    American Scientist Open Access Forum

  2. Richard Article author

    Stevan,

    With the exception of the title the only mention of “Open Access Journals” in my article is in the quote from the Civil Service Scientist Tony Hutchings.

    Most publishers won’t let you publish a copy of your article on your website and also agree to publish it in their journals. In any-case that creates a system such as the one we have with the paper I have featured in the article; the author is controlling access and those wishing to access the document have to approach him and ask for a copy. That is not open access in my view.

    My comments are in favour of open access publication of all descriptions. I think we need a culture change where there is much greater openness and information sharing. While I think there ought be publication of data on research group websites, institutional pre-print websites etc. I do think that publication of the final results of a publicly funded project ought be in an open access journal of some description or otherwise submitted to an online repository such as pubmed central.

  3. Stevan Harnad

    Richard,
    Most publishers have endorsed the posting of their accepted, peer-reviewed drafts in their institutional repository, and that is Open Access (Green Open Access). See http://romeo.eprints.org/stats.php

    That is neither publishing in an OA journal (Gold OA) nor the posting of unrefereed, unpublished research. It is Green OA self-archiving of refereed, published research.

    Stevan Harnad
    American Scientist Open Access Forum

  4. Richard Article author

    In this particular context then it appears the Forestry Commission are free to post a copy of the paper on their website, or in their FOI disclosure log.

    What they’re not able to do I suspect is release it to WhatDoTheyKnow.com or place it in an open access repository.

    By including restrictions that publication is restricted to institutional, or the author’s own sites the ability of someone looking for a publication to be able to find it would not be high. Without freedom to republish and archive the ability to locate an article, and also ensure it is archived and stays available online indefinitely are diminished. I think that we should require UK funded research results be published without restriction on their use so that they can be submitted to free online repositories. Submitting to publishers’ licences restricting what can be done with a publication simply maintains their position and business. Theirs is a business which charges the public for information they have already paid through their taxes to create, I don’t think the UK taxpayer should continue to support it.

    I think it is worth arguing on the basic point first – results of research funded by the UK taxpayer ought be freely available – the UK Taxpayer should demand that.

  5. Richard Article author

    I have written to the author suggesting he puts a copy of the paper on the Forestry Commission website website, perhaps in a freedom of information disclosure log; or if he can’t – let me know what is preventing him from doing so.

    Even if this occurs the information is still not free, how it can be used and where it can be published is still tightly controlled by the publisher despite it being information the UK taxpayer paid to create.

  6. Doug

    Very interesting piece, it’s impossible to argue against the title of this article. The only part I would take issue with is the part about career scientists.

    The pickle that I find myself in is that I’m on a temporary contract at a UK university with very little chance of ever getting a full time position. If I ever get a chance to publish in something like Nature I just cannot afford to pass on it – my job depends on it. Even if I did have a permanent job I’d still have to ferociously compete for funding. It’s not being a career scientist – it’s surviving.

    Hopefully the world’s governments and the journals can get this sorted. I just don’t think it’s fair to ask the players to change the game.

  7. Richard Article author

    Doug,

    I know from my own experience talking to university staff that they often feel unable to change things for the better because they feel their jobs would be at risk if they did things differently.

    At Cambridge University many professors look to the students to change policy as more often they don’t have families and mortgages to support so are more able to to take risks. However students are increasingly constrained too and also have a lot to lose.

    I agree the solution is for Governments to take action. At the next general election I hope to be able to vote for a candidate who supports research funded by UK taxpayers being made available in an unrestricted manner via open access journals and repositories.

  8. Doug

    That’s a bit frightening that professors use their students for this. One of my papers as a student is still the crown of my CV as it went in a top journal. Haven’t quite matched it since!

    You’ve inspired me to check the copyright of journals I do use. The American Physical Society seems quite good (and they’re good journals), you can put pdfs on your webpage, use the preprint servers etc.

    All this said, I agree, I’ll be writing to my MP and linking them here.

  9. Richard Article author

    In response to this article I’ve been pointed to the International Open Access Week at Cambridge University:

    http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/create_change/events.html

    I’ve also made some additional comments as a result of correspondence asking me to comment on the sharing of raw data and other matters:

    As someone who has spent time working both in the life sciences and engineering I am aware that timely access to raw data is a very important part of freely sharing the results of publicly funded scientific research. Sequencing and structural data are a great example of how raw data sharing openly can make a huge difference to the progress of research. I think that where possible and practical raw data arising from publicly funded ought be made easily accessible online too; though it is hard to define what this means in a general sense – it has to be done on a field by field basis. Perhaps a good step would be to require all applicants for public grants to consider how they will share their raw data and that could be reviewed by those assessing the application.

    There is a deep cultural aversion to data sharing in some areas; I have seen research groups where even when given the tools to enable the easy sharing of data individuals have gone to great lengths to try and retain personal ownership and control over data. From what I’ve seen of UK academia there is a counterproductive focus on an individual’s own independent work and not their contribution to a team effort or the greater good. As with many problems I think the solution starts with education and there’s a need to get across the importance of free data-sharing right from the beginning of science education in schools.

    I think publication of results in some form at least akin to journal articles; in a centrally searchable manner is in many fields likely to remain important. I do not believe that simply allowing authors to post their work on their own websites or in institutional repositories is sufficient to ensure open access; I believe the publishers are pushing this option as it leaves the opportunity open for them to justify their business model to those (eg. MPs) who do not look into the matter in depth and are dazzled by impressive sounding “principles” espoused by research councils but which have not resulted in substantial enough change. Allowing self-publishing enables publishing companies to argue they are providing a useful service by making information easily accessible and searchable whereas if they did not restrict the way publications can be reused this problem would be solved by distributed, centrally accessible, open access repositories.

  10. Richard Taylor Article author

    If I updated this article every time I wanted to read something I’d already paid for through my taxes we’d be well into the hundreds of comments, but I thought I’d note that over the last couple of weeks there have been news reports about the Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study, so I looked for the results of this study, which has been taxpayer funded to the tune of £2.6m, the key publication appears to be this £60 book.

    Other recent “publications” listed on the ESRC website appear to be conference abstracts.

    I think this makes a mockery of the ESRC Open Access Policy.

  11. Richard Taylor Article author

    The guardian is reporting the Government are going to announce their agreement with all but one of the recommendations to reform academic publishing made following a review led by Janet Finch.

    This is clearly an excellent, and significant, step forward.

    It relates to academic articles, so won’t stop academics publishing expensive paid for books and presenting results at expensive conferences. It won’t necessarily require academics to publish their results at all, there are other options such as commercialisation.

    The primary concern raised is charges from journal publishers, hopefully though these will provide an economic incentive to move away from the model of publishing results primarily in journals, and prompt innovation. Rapid publication online, with post publication scrutiny and review by everyone might well be the way to go. Those not able to afford or justify, journal’s charges for publication will find other ways to share their results.

    I don’t think protecting the current activities of UK scientific publishing industry ought be part of the Government’s strategy; we should be trying to make the UK the most attractive place for those who will provide services in the field of sharing and disseminate research results in the future to base themselves, be they established companies responding and offering new services, start-ups, or universities.

  12. Richard Taylor Article author

    UK public funds are used to contribute to the European Space Agency.

    The ESA’s Rosetta mission is due to land on a comet on 12 November 2014.

    The ESA has recently written an article explaining why it is keeping images and other data from the mission secret and only making them accessible to a select academic elite for a period of time, extending to weeks and months, after the material is obtained.

    The justification given is that the careers of the scientists involved are being put, by those scientists, ahead of the public interest.

    I think if our MPs are to spend public money on research they should ensure the results of that work are freely published and made available to all in a timely manner.

    The most recent set of images were released four days after being obtained; so perhaps comments complaining about a delay of over a month releasing previous images are being heeded. (Or perhaps those responsible for the mission blog are in a different part of the vast public funded behemoth from those publishing images from the mission and there is no consistent policy on timely publication.

  13. Richard Taylor Article author

    Pamela Burnard of the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education recently announced on that she had published a book, the blurb makes it sound quite interesting:

    The purpose and impact of the professional doctorate – or EdD (Doctor of Education) – has long been debated. What should it be? Who should do it? Why is it worth doing? How should it be taught? What makes the EdD distinctive, unique and worthwhile?

    I would be interested to read the answers to those questions, as would I expect MPs, councillors, those considering working as teachers or as education researchers. I decided to ask Pamela Burnard if the work had been publicly funded, and if so why it wasn’t being freely published online, but made accessible via a $43 book. Despite her role within Cambridge University, a public body, Burnard was evasive and unforthcoming when addressing my questions:

    A tweet from Burnard in which she suggested MPs and others could email her [presumably for a copy], or buy the book, appears to have been deleted. I am shocked not only by the evasive and unforthcoming nature of the exchange, but also by the fact Burnard appears to have deleted elements of it.

    Pamela Burnard appears to be an editor of the book which contains contributions from Burnard and others.

  14. Richard Taylor Article author

    The article quoted here is by ex Cambridge MP Candidate Nick Hillman:

    The excerpt states:

    Policymakers have no access to academic journals. There is no institutional Westminster or Whitehall log-in, so politicians and civil servants generally see less academic research than the greenest undergraduate. When I was a civil servant, my department would go into meltdown if I asked to see an academic paper, as there was no budget for the $30 cost of accessing it online. This is the reason the Higher Education Policy Institute controversially recommended a national licence to enable anyone with a computer in the UK to access previously published research. It is also a key reason why MPs recruit student interns: they bring their log-in details with them.

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