Among the many challenges brought on by the rapid and ongoing spread of COVID-19 is the need to learn as quickly as possible the many unknowns of the disease: why some people develop more severe disease, whether contracting the virus confers immunity, and, if so, for how long, and what therapeutics will be effective. Medical journals around the world are opening access to COVID-19-related research for public viewing to ensure timely access to information and to share research that may slow and eventually end this pandemic.
Explore This IssueAugust 2020
Open access journals aren’t new. Beginning in the early 2000s with the growing expansion and use of the internet, a number of initiatives emerged advocating open access. The Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, and the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing defined open access as basically providing publishing content at no cost with unrestricted allowance to reuse content with the appropriate attribution (BMJ Open. 2019;9:e028655. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028655). The copyright for the article remains with the author rather than the journal.
A fundamental difference from traditional journal publishing is the financial model used to support and sustain open access journals. Instead of the subscription or licensing fees covering the cost of publication, publication costs are borne by the author and are often subsidized by their affiliated organization or grant monies from publicly sponsored research.
Over the past couple of decades, a number of journals have switched to open access for all or some content, or with initial embargo periods. These include high-impact journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Lancet, all of which have opened access to COVID-19-related research during this pandemic period. Other journals were created as solely open access journals, often accompanying more traditional journals associated with a particular medical association. Among these journals are Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology, OTO Open, and Ear, Nose & Throat Journal.
Arguments for transitioning to full open access of medical research include acknowledgement that taxpayer-supported research should be made easily available to everyone. A provision in a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 2008 (the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008; H.R. 2764) supports this but with a caveat: All research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is required to be accessible via PubMed Central within 12 months of publication. Other countries have similar open access repositories. European countries have taken a strong lead in expanding open access with a goal (called Plan S) to mandate that publicly funded research be published open access by 2020.
In the United States, large university systems are calling for open access publication of their research. On June 16, the University of California (UC) joined with Springer Nature in what has been touted as the largest open access agreement in North America to date. The UC is one of many university systems endorsing a 2019 framework by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on negotiating publisher contracts for open access. Days before the UC-Springer announcement, MIT reported a similar attempt to negotiate an agreement with publisher Elsevier, which has failed to date.
On June 29, MIT launched a new open access journal called Rapid Reviews: Covid-19 designed to accelerate peer review of COVID-19-related research, rapidly review preprints of research posted without peer review on servers such as bioRxiv and medRxiv to prevent dissemination of false or misleading research, and offer a publishing outlet for authors of positively reviewed papers.
Restriction Equals Prestige?
The prestige accompanying publishing in high-impact journals that restrict access to license holders or subscribers remains a strong incentive to send research to such journals. As Charlotte J. Haug, MD, PhD, states in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (2019;380:1181-1185. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMms1900864), “Many scientists want their work to be vetted and endorsed by third parties with a reputation for quality and independence; such an endorsement comes from many sources, including long-established journals.”