Viewpoint: To deal with global challenges, open access publishing must be the new normal

03 Feb 2022 | Viewpoint

As the development of COVID-19 vaccines illustrates, freely sharing publications and data speeds the translation of research - for public good. With the case proved, there must be a renewed push for open access

Robert-Jan Smits, President of the executive board of the Eindhoven University of Technology.

Each year, taxpayers worldwide contribute over $2 trillion towards research and development – for new vaccines, for example, but also to further our knowledge of climate change, health, economies, poverty and other global inequalities. Public money contributes to the publication of around 2.5 million papers in scientific journals each year – yet as taxpayers most of us have access to just a fraction of that output.

In fact, it is estimated that at least two thirds of the world’s publicly funded research, and an even higher majority of the world’s total research content, is locked behind paywalls, preventing millions of people from accessing the information they want or need.

And the problem goes far beyond late night googling. Blocking access to the outputs of publicly funded research restricts education, slows down translation of biomedical research into improved treatments for chronic and infectious diseases and widens the inequality gap between the global north and south.

Meanwhile, commercial publishers are turning that public funding into private profit: in 2017, the five largest academic publishing houses boasted a turnover of $19 billion. It’s a bizarre situation that rarely receives the mainstream public attention it deserves.

Campaigners have been pushing for open access – that is, free and unconditional access to knowledge for online readers – for decades, but with limited success. The theory goes that if the academic publishing system could be flipped on its head, with publication paid for once a paper is accepted by a journal, rather than by the end user, the reader – the system would be fairer and research would be more widely and equitably disseminated.

This new system is more than possible, but it requires support from publishers – including the biggest businesses – too. 

New rules

On 4th September 2018, ‘Plan S’ was unveiled with the aim of kick-starting a world-wide shift in attitudes towards open access research. For the first time, public research funding agencies across continents joined forces to impose new rules on the publication of research, with the aim that one day all research would be free and openly accessible to all.

What followed was a debate of global proportions, as stakeholders were forced to ask themselves big questions, such as: Who has the right to access publicly funded research? And will it ever be possible to enforce change on a multi-billion dollar market dominated by a few big players?

Since the launch, Plan S has confronted much prejudice and push-back. There has been progress, but much more needs to be done. We have set out the case for open access and how the controversial plan was turned into reality, in a new book, ‘Plan S for Shock’. We’re telling this story to record what has been achieved, but also to highlight how the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis have exposed the shortcomings - and the price everyone pays - because the traditional academic publishing system keeps information and knowledge locked behind paywalls. As the book seeks to illustrate, this situation is unsustainable.

If the global crises of pandemic and climate change have taught us anything, it’s that access to information is critical. We are slowly coming out of a pandemic that has directly claimed more than 5.6 million lives and been responsible for untold ill health, not only as a result of COVID-19 infection, but because regular services such as cancer screening were interrupted. When the pandemic hit, many academic publishers did the responsible thing and removed paywalls for COVID-19-related research, meaning anyone in the world could read and learn from the experts in the field.

Within weeks of the first cases in Wuhan, researchers around the globe started work to develop vaccines, something which was made possible by the fact scientists in China shared the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus openly – for free, online. In sharing the outline of the problem, it could be tackled collectively, and faster, by thousands of international colleagues.

If we can do it for COVID-19, why not climate change, rare diseases, the energy transition, migration, poverty and social injustice? The pandemic has shown that making research open is possible, but more than this, it shattered the illusion that traditional publishing can continue in the same way it has done for generations. How can we ever go back to the way we worked before, now that open access has been proven to be successful?

Time to act

Sadly, we already are. Paywalls are gradually creeping back up, and with it there is still a resistance to change among some of the bigger players. But there is a sea change in public opinion, in attitudes among academics and the universities. Transformative read-and-publish deals between libraries and publishers are also a turning point, with most publishers now gradually committing to transition their journals towards full open access over the coming years.

Plan S was intended as a stone thrown into the water: the initiative helped to accelerate the number of transformative agreements taking place, and it also incentivised the creation of new publishing platforms in the open access domain. But, above all, Plan S forced big commercial publishers to rethink their business models – some for the first time – and sparked a debate about the future of academic publishing that would make it impossible for the broken system to stay as it was.

Ultimately, it will be up to research funding agencies, but also the wider academic community, to monitor the transition towards open access and make the sharing of knowledge beyond borders the new normal. If we have any hope of solving some of the biggest challenges facing the planet, it’s crucial that we do.

Robert-Jan Smits is president of the executive board of the Eindhoven University of Technology. He was previously director general of research and innovation at the European Commission, where he founded Plan S. Rachel Pells is a journalist and author on science and education topics.

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