Open access publishing and academia

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—I read with more than passing interest the fine summary of the potential negative implications of open access publishing, especially page charges, by Jacqueline Hill (HI 27.5, Sept./Oct. 2019). She describes, without exaggeration, the consequences for academic researchers trying to publish when not in receipt of research grants to cover these page charges. Although not a historian, I approach this issue as a researcher in the biomedical sciences, which, even if often better funded than history and the other humanities, may also suffer advance consequences.

Previously, access to important research was often overly dependent on the whim of academic journals or, more importantly, the publishing houses, who restricted immediate access to subscribers only and to others for a considerable period, after which access was free to non-subscribers. Recent times have seen a shift, with state and other public funding bodies insisting that the results of research funded by the public purse should be accessible to the public, i.e. the taxpayer, as soon as possible. In the health sciences, for example, early publication and access may lead to improvements in the treatment of various diseases, which is clearly important. Hence, instead of the subscriber, whether individual or institutional, supporting the costs of publishing academic journals, increasingly—and especially for online journals—the researcher funds the journal through page charges, with immediate access open to all. In many biomedical journals, such charges may amount to four-digit figures and more, which are beyond the resources of many departments or individual researchers.

There are serious implications for the publication of important research that is not well funded or not funded at all. Often this may be what might be described as opportunistic research, i.e. carried out as part of routine work in an academic department, healthcare institution or elsewhere, and prompted by important observations, but which is not funded by a grant-awarding body, a university or a healthcare institution.  

As a general principle, it is clearly right and appropriate that research of whatever category that is funded through the public purse should be made accessible as soon as possible to civic society, which, after all, has provided the resources for it to be carried out. That can and should be budgeted for in research grants by an allowance for page charges, which is increasingly the norm in research applications. However, this welcome development of quicker and open access must not inhibit or prevent the publication of research that is not formally funded but is valuable and that contributes to our knowledge and understanding in the biomedical sciences, history and other fields. Therefore a system must be devised that facilitates the publication and dissemination of such research, such as waiving page charges in these circumstances. If not, valuable contributions to research will be lost, to the detriment of us all. Common sense and the public interest should surely mandate this.—Yours etc.,

HILARY HUMPHREYS
Dublin 7    

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