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Open Access : How Times Change

21 October 2020

Written by guest blogger Julie Browne, Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, Cardiff University / Co-Chair of Cardiff University Press Editorial Board

In 2005 I was the managing editor of a medical education journal that was published by one of the ‘big five’ publishers, with an annual turnover of hundreds of thousands of pounds. As part of my role, I was privileged to attend the fifth JAMA Peer Review Congress in Chicago, where participants discussed such contentious and important topics as pharmaceutical companies’ sponsorship of published research, quality of peer review, scientific misconduct, publication bias, and so on.  It was a great honour to hear a keynote from the late Eugene Garfield, the pioneer in bibliometrics who gave the world the impact factor. (He admitted frankly to the meeting that he’d “created a monster.”) It was a fascinating and memorable experience (not least because I was mugged on the way back to the airport, but that’s another story).

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, one of the most noteworthy things that happened during that meeting took place over lunch. I found myself sitting next to a young German academic, who told me proudly that he was the editor of a ‘platinum open access’ journal.

Well, I kept a straight face, but my first thought was to feel a bit sorry for him.  After all, I thought, everyone knew that open access (OA) wouldn’t last because OA publishing was a ‘cottage industry’. We still had dial-up internet, for heavens’ sake!  I imagined this rather geeky technophile academic struggling away in his bedroom at weekends to publish not-very-good papers on a small and obscure platform that would never be read by anyone. How could he possibly hope to compete with organisations like my publisher, which employed many thousands of people in a multi-million pound global enterprise?

But I couldn’t help being impressed by his passion and fervour.  He pointed out how unfair the traditional system was, particularly on readers in developing countries. He reminded me that science should be for the benefit of the whole world, not just those who can pay for it. He drew attention to something I hadn’t previously noticed – that the whole congress was based around concerns about how money can affect the publication process, introducing vested interests that affect how science is reported and disseminated. And he argued that Universities were paying publishers twice over, both by supplying the free labour of the academics who researched and wrote the work and also by having to pay enormous sums in journal subscriptions.  He predicted that one day, OA would sweep the world; Universities and academics would lose patience with the current publishing model and the publishers would need to change or go out of business.

Well, I smiled politely at this optimistic vision of his, only vaguely persuaded. Given the nature of my work at the time, I was rather hoping he was wrong. But his arguments had slightly shaken my confidence in traditional publishing models. Over time, I began to see the justice of his arguments, and in recent years I have come to realise just how right he was.

Here we are, only 15 years later, and that young German academic’s predictions are coming true (Eysenbach 2019). There are more OA papers being indexed in PubMed Central than non-OA. Research funders and institutions, far from upholding the traditional system, are making OA mandatory for their staff. Open Access now forms a core part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme (Tennant et al 2016). World-class Universities such as Cardiff are setting up their own open access publishers. 

And here I am, co-Chair of the Cardiff University Press’s Editorial Board, gamekeeper-turned-poacher, proudly and fervently promoting open access as the best way to engage the public with academic research. At a time when scholarly and scientific expertise is increasingly under attack, democratic open access to high quality academic outputs is not just desirable, it’s an essential human right. Congratulations to Cardiff University for recognising this and supporting open access through the work of the Press; we are in the vanguard of an open-scholarship revolution and I look forward to seeing where the next 15 years take us.

Eysenbach G. (2019). Celebrating 20 Years of Open Access and Innovation at JMIR Publications. Journal of medical Internet research21(12), e17578.

Tennant, J. P., Waldner, F., Jacques, D. C., Masuzzo, P., Collister, L. B., & Hartgerink, C. H. (2016). The academic, economic and societal impacts of Open Access: an evidence-based review. F1000Research5, 632.