In pursuit of trusted information: the trials and tribulations of public access

Amber Tear

The concept of public, barrier-free access to research findings emerged at the turn of the century. At that time, the academic publishing landscape was dominated by subscription-based journals. Initially championed by researchers, the quest for public access (often referred to as ‘open access’) gained momentum over the past decade, buoyed by public access mandates from research funders and by the dawn of transformative agreements. Yet barriers to public access to research persist, among them maintaining the financial sustainability of current publishing models. A recent webinar from the Friends of the National Library of Medicine, which was titled Public access to health information: providing trusted information to all, brought together leading multidisciplinary experts in public access to discuss these challenges and the practicalities of ensuring public access for all.

Public access is a key line of defence in the war on misinformation, Chris Winchester (CEO of Oxford PharmaGenesis) proposed in his introduction to the webinar; amplifying good quality information, he continued, is of vital importance. Fellow webinar participant George Lundberg (Editor-In-Chief at Cancer Commons) echoed this sentiment by describing the pursuit of public access as a “Herculean struggle about the validity of information, its control, access and usefulness”.

Federal and industry research funders, represented at the webinar by Lisa Federer (Data Science and Open Science Librarian at the National Institutes of Health [NIH]) and Catherine Skobe (Pfizer Publications Innovative Solutions Lead), highlighted past and ongoing efforts by their organizations to drive public access. The NIH, a long proponent of research accessibility, has data sharing and public access policies that date from 2008 and that have evolved over the intervening period in accordance with White House directives from Office of Science and Technology Policy. Within industry, Pfizer’s engagement with public access began in 2017 after joining Open Pharma, a multi-sponsor not-for-profit collaboration led by Oxford PharmaGenesis. Open Pharma aims to improve the pharma publications model by connecting pharma with innovations in publishing to increase transparency and access to research outputs. Now, with a mission to publish 95% open access, Pfizer has created a wide range of resources to support internal and external decision-making and has embraced new technologies to assess progress towards this goal.

Paywalls that prevent public access to research pose a substantial challenge to patients and researchers alike, explained webinar participant Durhane Wong-Rieger (President and CEO of the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders). Durhane described the frustrations that can arise when seeking information in the current publishing climate, particularly the frustrations faced by patients with rare diseases. Drawing on both personal and professional experiences, Durhane reflected on the challenges that restricted access to research findings have presented in her role as a patient advocate, and also as a caregiver trying to identify accurate and unbiased information for family members living with rare conditions. Nazneen Rahman (Founder and CEO of YewMaker) also spoke of an appetite for research accessibility within the researcher community, but noted that this principle can conflict with the need to publish in high-impact factor journals in order to maintain research funding. Recalling her time working as a clinical geneticist, Dr Rahman spoke of instances in which patients with rare diseases were forced to purchase paywalled journal articles just to learn more about their conditions.

Achieving widescale public access to research requires broad implementation of open access publishing models, something that will have substantial consequences for publishers and librarians. Angela Cochran (Vice President of Publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology) spoke of the necessary change in editorial dynamics that comes with a switch to gold open access models; changes that often require an increase in article volume to offset loss in subscription revenue. Angela spoke of the need to explore sustainable public access models in recognition of the risk to editorial quality, and to the sustainability of small and mid-sized publishers that can come with such an increase in article volume. Building on this sentiment, Gene Springs (Collections Strategist at Ohio State University) highlighted the practicalities of navigating transformative agreements, particularly the shared risk that exists between librarians and publishers, as well as the need for intra- and extra-university collaboration to achieve successful public access to university research.

We strongly encourage everyone with an interest in public access to watch this 1-hour webinar to learn more about the drivers and challenges of ensuring public access for all.

Amber Tear is a Senior Medical Writer at Oxford PharmaGenesis.