Memo to research funders: If you want open science, try harder

Kamila Markram, head of open science platform Frontiers, argues research funders must do much more to speed openness in science

Kamila Markram, speaking at a Science|Business conference in June 2017

Kamila Markram wants to see research funders do more than praise openness throughout science. She wants them to make it happen - faster.  

For the past decade, the scientific establishment has been moving towards open access publishing – by which the results of publicly funded research are free for all to read, rather than hidden behind subscription-only paywalls. The European Commission, the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many other researcher funders now encourage scientists they fund to publish openly.

But despite that kind of official blessing, by Markram’s count only 10 per cent of the journal articles currently being published are freely available on a publisher’s website at the time of publication – a mode of publication known as “gold” open access. More are available with a delay – often six months – through so-called “green” open access.

To anyone who has been following the open access debate since it went global, the figure for the gold route might seem surprisingly low. “I was surprised when we did the analysis,” she says, “I thought we would be a lot further down the road.”

Of course, Markram has a direct stake in this game. She is chief executive of Frontiers, one of the largest gold open access publishers. The Swiss-based digital open science platform was founded in 2007 by her and her husband – both neuroscientists at the Swiss federal technical university in Lausanne. Since then, it has seen a huge expansion; and Markram expects its journals to receive close to 40,000 submissions this year across almost 60 journals. It will publish roughly half of all submissions.

What’s a funder to do?

But why isn’t the global market for open access moving faster? Part of the reason, she says, is that although research funders encourage their grantees to publish in open access journals, very few of them actually mandate it.

Money might be an issue. For example, the European Research Council expressly permits its grant holders to use part of the grant to finance publication in open access journals – but that still forces researchers to choose between spending money on publication or using it to cover research costs.

And those publication costs can be multiple, because one research grant will often lead to several research papers. The ERC itself reckons that more than 40,000 papers in peer-reviewed journals (up to the end of 2015) acknowledged its support – and that is from 7,000 grants so far, many of them still running.

Here the open access publishers are victims of their own transparency. They all publish their “article processing charge”, the fee that authors pay to have their research peer-reviewed, edited and published. That fee can vary from around $1,000 an article to more than $5,000, depending on the journal.

The result has been an “obsession” about article processing charges, says Markram.  Much of the discussion around the charges is “confused”, she says. Libraries are effectively paying an average of €3,800 to €5,000 per article for access to research in subscription journals. “Yet people are discussing whether it’s justified to charge €1,000 for an open access article.”

So Markram is calling for EU governments to allow for the cost of open access publishing in their grants. “Don’t squeeze too much, because quality publishing costs.” she says. And, in the end, moving from subscriptions to open access publishing would save universities and research libraries around €3.6 – €6 billion a year – a figure derived from estimates in a white paper by the Max Planck Digital Library[1]. Also, she says, open access would significantly speed up the whole slow game of scientific publishing – getting results out in the public domain more quickly and widely than subscription-only journals normally permit.

What’s the impact?

The trouble is that with so many scientists being rated by the impact factor of the journals in which they publish, it can be an uphill struggle to get them to move away from the high-impact journals where they have always sought to publish and which are traditionally subscription journals.

It’s a mindset that’s unfortunately “deeply engrained in the psyche of research funders”, Markram says. “We have a big debate about quality issues,” she says, but she insists that the data are on her side. When it comes to impact factors, the Frontiers journals, for example, all rate in the upper percentiles of their fields and in terms of total citations often outperform long-established journals[2].

But she’s keen to move away from the “old model” of judging researchers based on the impact factors of the journals where they publish to the actual impact of their research articles. In the “new model”, quantitative metrics such as downloads and citations are used to judge the real impact of individual articles and in aggregate form of individual researchers. These allow direct comparisons between the performance of researchers within academic fields, countries and even cohorts. Performance based on article impact, rather than journal impact, demonstrates a form of impact that funding bodies often don’t seem to take into account.

 “There is a lot of advocacy to be done,” she says, for governments to fully leverage their investments in R&D. “It’s so obvious and clear that research and innovation are at the centre of the fourth industrial revolution,” she insists.


Editor’s note: Frontiers is a member of the Science|Business Network.

[1] Schimmer, R., Geschuhn, K. K., & Vogler, A. (2015). Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access. doi:10.17617/1.3.

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Related subjects: Open access, Science, Open science cloud