On Thursday, I attended the FOSTER Discovering Open Practices event jointly organised by the libraries at LSE, King’s College London (KCL) and Queen Mary’s College, London (QMUL). The event aimed at promoting open access and open academic practices to early career researchers. It was an eye-opening experience, which showed me how current publication practices affect early career researchers desperate to make their mark in academia.

I was particularly struck by Joe McArthur’s (@mcarthur_joe) presentation. Joe is the Assistant Director for from the Right to Research Coalition, and having recently graduated from UCL, had the frustration of not having access to research fresh in his mind. He  talked about how publishing firms behind prestigious journals often force researchers to hand over the copyright for years of hard work, (80% of which is publicly funded), only to restrict access through paywalls leading to profit margins for Springer and Elsevier which even the likes of Microsoft and Google would be envious of. And the costs seem to keep going up. Joe mentioned that costs have gone up 400% in the last 20 to 30 years, and the average subscription for a health science journal is now $1482 a year. Researchers are not only restricted from accessing vital research but sometimes also forced to turn to illegal file sharing to be able to complete their own research, with possible legal consequences for the researcher.

Smaller, lesser funded institutions, particularly those in the developing world, can struggle to keep up with costs. The humanities are also particularly affected. As humanities subjects receive only 1% of the annual UK research budget nationally, financially stretched libraries have to make difficult decisions about the journals they can subscribe to, according to Caroline Edwards (@the_blochian) from the Open Library of Humanities.

Research isn’t just used by other researchers and academics, but also by doctors, policy makers, ministers, engineers and many others. Limiting journal access to university libraries and blocking access via paywalls holds back important and potentially ground-breaking research from the very people who could actually implement it’s recommendations.

Open Access and Creative Commons

Open access and creative commons licences offer an excellent alternative, particularly to early career researchers looking to establish themselves, and make an impact with their research. There are now over 9000 open journals, some of which offer Gold access to their papers, meaning articles are available to download straight away through the journal website. Articles can also be made available through Green access, where articles are hosted some of the 2000 odd university repositories.

There are, of course, certain myths and beliefs which may put researchers off from publishing openly. Myths, such as open access journals are somehow of a lesser quality, and that these journals lack the prestige and impact of established subscription journals, can be hard to resist. However, many open journals, such as the  Journal of Information Literacy, are peer-reviewed, and follow the same publishing criteria as subscription journals. Caroline Edwards argued that journals are deemed prestigious because prestige has been conferred upon them by academics over time. By resisting subscription journals, and also publishing through open journals, open journals may also start to gain prestige over time.

Contrary to having less impact, publishing through open journals makes research far more accessible to more people, and therefore allowing more people to read and cite articles. Copyright issues can be addressed by using Creative Commons licences, which protect the copyrights of the author, whilst allowing people to use, remix and modify the research materials, so long as they are properly attributed. Research needs to be accessible and communicable, according to Cameron Neylon, Advocacy director for PLOS. He urged researchers to not get bogged down in the process of simply producing paper after paper, but to think about how their research will affect the end user. Research needn’t just be communicated via journal articles; blogs, websites, media articles and social media are also important ways to get research out there. The panel had the following tips for early career researchers:

  • Think about who is affected by your research and how can they access your work
    • Using open access journals, github, social media and blogging can open up your research to a much wider audience, potentially leading to more citations and increased impact.
  • Don’t sign away your copyright!
    • Researchers are under no obligation to sign any such agreement. Use Creative Commons licences to protect your work, while allowing others to use it.
  • Talk to your research librarian!
    • Research librarians are there to help researchers make their work accessible and can advise on a range of topics, from copyright to publishing in open access journals.
  • Have an online presence
    • Being able to network with other researchers and stakeholders in an important part of making sure your research has impact, and can open up new avenues for researchers. Don’t keep your research to yourself!

Open access should not be approached as an onerous task required to fulfil the criteria of REF or Horizon 2020. It should be seen as the democratisation of research. By using open sourced research, pioneers like Jack Andrakas, a high-school teenager, were able to produce tests for pancreatic cancer that were far cheaper and effective than existing tests:

#fosteropenscience inspiring case of innovation made possible largely due to open access research https://t.co/QdHs2C247I — Arun Karnad (@arkarnad) September 4, 2014

Proof that in the end, open research benefits us all.