Day 2020 Res Involv Engagem

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Day S, Rennie S, Luo D, Tucker JD (2020) Open to the public: paywalls and the public rationale for open access medical research publishing. Res Involv Engagem 6:8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40900-020-0182-y

» PMID: 32161664 Open Access

Day S, Rennie S, Luo D, Tucker JD (2020) Res Involv Engagem

Abstract: Public voices have largely been absent from the discussions about open access publishing in medical research. Yet the public have a strong interest in ensuring open access of medical research findings because of their roles as funders, advocates, research participants, and patients. By limiting access to research outputs, the current publishing system makes it more difficult for research to be held accountable to the public. Paywalls undermine the work of public advocacy, which requires open access in order to lobby for policy changes and research funding. Research participants generously give their time and energy to research studies with the assumption that the results will be broadly disseminated. Finally, members of the public have a stake in open access publishing as a resource for health information and decision-making. This commentary explores these crucial roles of the public in order to develop a public rationale for open access medical research. We outline a critique of the current academic publishing ecosystem, re-focus the open access debate from a public perspective, and respond to some of the arguments against public open access. Although open access to medical research is not a panacea, removing paywalls and other barriers to public access is essential. The public are critical stakeholders of medical research data.

Bioblast editor: Gnaiger E

Selected quotations

  • A review estimated that only 28% of all scholarly publications are currently open access [9], meaning that the vast majority of academic knowledge remains inaccessible without a paid individual or institutional subscription. -- Paywalls thus continue to represent a substantial barrier to freely access medical knowledge.
  • Annual revenues from English-language science, technology and medical publishing journals in 2017 were estimated to be USD$10 billion [11]. This profit is primarily concentrated in the hands of a small number of publishers; in 2013, 53 % of all natural and medical science publications were published by the five largest for-profit academic publishing companies [12].
  • the library of Harvard University announced that the estimated $3.5 million in annual subscription costs were financially unsustainable and encouraged publishing in open access journals as a way to push back [13].
  • The University of California ultimately cancelled its subscription to Elsevier in March 2019 when the publishing giant refused to reconsider terms that would result in higher costs to the university while simultaneously reducing access, excluding content, and limiting financial support to authors [15].
  • paywalled articles received fewer page views, fewer citations, and less social media attention compared to open access articles [16].
  • While researchers are required to provide detailed progress reports to funding bodies, open access publishing presents one of the few opportunities for the public to understand the impact that public money has had on advancing medical research.
  • who will pay for open access publishing, under what business model, and at what price. As a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine has argued, there are necessary and unavoidable costs involved in academic publishing, including the expense of editorial processing and production staffing [36]. However, while the reality is that someone must pay the costs of publishing, there is arguably a substantial difference between ensuring a sustainable income for a journal to cover production costs, compared to publishers’ profit-driven annual subscription mark-ups to boost their bottom line.
  • In current open access publishing models, many of the costs associated with production are passed on to individual researchers who agree to pay a fee should their submission be accepted by the journal. This model has been criticized for the potential to create a twotiered system in which peer review is not the sole deciding factor in whose research gets published, but additionally who can afford the fee [38].
  • Collectively, the principles of Plan S operate on the underlying assumption that unrestricted, universal access to scientific knowledge through open access is a public good [41].
  • Ref. 41: cOAlition S. São Paulo Statement on Open Access. 2019. Google Scholar - Comment: try the Google Scholar link.
  • Rather than limiting access to research, we would argue the focus should instead be on increasing science literacy and improving the quality of academic publishing for the benefit of all.
  • Greater efforts can also be made on the part of scientific writers to make research more linguistically and conceptually accessible 51. Lay summaries accompanying publications may help to make open access research more navigable by members of the general public [52].
  • An academic publishing ecosystem that allows research outputs to be hidden behind paywalls – or that only makes knowledge available based on the ability of researchers to pay publishing fees – conflicts with the societal values of accountability, transparency, and scientific knowledge as a common good [55].

Cited by

Gnaiger 2021 Bioenerg Commun


Gnaiger E (2021) Beyond counting papers – a mission and vision for scientific publication. Bioenerg Commun 2021.5. https://doi:10.26124/BEC:2021-0005


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