Pharma and Publishers Forum: an Open Pharma roundtable discussion on open access

Mark Elms

In the second part of our series of reports from the Open Pharma roundtable ‘Pharma and Publishers Forum’, we explore open access publishing of industry-sponsored research. This roundtable discussion aimed to identify the key obstacles preventing open access publishing and explore potential solutions. The final two roundtable reports, focusing on data sharing and plain language summaries, will be released in the coming weeks.

Key talking points

Pharmaceutical companies fund approximately half of all biomedical research and are major players in the world of research publishing and disclosure. However, much of this industry-sponsored research exists behind journal paywalls, which restrict access to some audiences. Open Pharma believes that publishing medical research with open access is a critical priority for industry-sponsored research to improve transparency, medical knowledge and, ultimately, patient care. There are still several obstacles to open access publishing for industry-sponsored research – for instance, no pharma equivalent to Plan S (an open access initiative within the academic research publishing world) – and only a few organizations like Open Pharma actively encouraging pharma to publish with open access.

Challenges and solutions

The first consideration for authors in their journal selection is not open access

Open access is rarely the first reason for an author to choose a particular journal; journal selection is more frequently based on impact factor and citation score. Open access can also be sidelined in favour of other publication and dissemination strategies that are known to have impact on a specific audience. For example, authors can choose to disseminate their work via platforms that target specific audiences, such as healthcare professionals or patients. This focus on targeted dissemination approaches may cause open access to be overlooked.

One potential way pharma could boost open access is by acting at a policy level so that open access publishing is made mandatory for industry-sponsored research. In this way, authors know from the outset of their research project that they must publish their work in an open access journal. The roundtable participants highlighted that open access materials are more often engaged with, read and downloaded than paywalled content, and this perception was shared by pharma and publishing professionals. The discussion then focused on the opportunity to educate authors on alternative metrics of impact and the citation advantage that exists through open access publishing.

Limited pharma budgets can create biases in the publication landscape

To publish open access, authors must pay an article processing charge (APC). Most pharma companies will normally be comfortable to pay APCs unless they are unreasonably high. However, smaller pharma companies or companies from lower-income countries do not have the funds to publish all research across their portfolio with open access. As one participant stated, “the entry point (to open access) is a fee”. The research publications space therefore becomes biased, dominated by those with the ability to pay APCs, leaving other research less accessible and discoverable, and less likely to be used to inform treatment guidelines, treatment discussions and future research.

For non-pharma medical research, there are fee-waiving schemes from publishers and other institutions that are available to researchers at lower-income academic institutions. At the moment, however, there are no similar financial support routes for industry-sponsored research.

Are there ways to improve authors’ understanding and engagement with open access licensing agreements?

There was consensus across the participants that many authors do not understand or engage appropriately with open access licensing agreements. The participating publishers also observed that authors are typically not very good at providing journals with the right information to ensure that the correct licence is applied.

Three potential solutions to this problem were discussed and can be summarized as follows:

  • Pharma companies or publishers could provide training in the different types of publication licence and what each one of them means in terms of reuse, distribution and adaptation.
  • Licensing agreements could be made less complicated, and their processes could be standardized across publication platforms.
  • Publishers could update their systems to incorporate funder and pharma workflows for bulk publishing, to reduce the administration burden and ensure use of intended licences.

If you missed our first ‘Pharma and Publishers Forum’ roundtable post on discoverability, you can read it here.