Friday 9 December 2011

Open Access To Research

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I spend a lot of time reading and reviewing the research literature on cancer. I see translating that research into plainer language that is more accessible to the average person is one of the things that this site can usefully do. As such having access to the research papers is essential. Unfortunately getting hold of papers is not always an easy task. Science journals are incredibly expensive to subscribe to (typically many hundreds of pounds a year) and there are a lot of them. The whole system is geared towards providing access to research to academics and researcher (mostly) via university or institutional libraries. Without this library access an individual can buy a copy of a specific paper - but here the cost ranges from a few tens of pounds to over a hundred. For most people this is prohibitive, especially if you are a cancer patient or carer and are doing a lot of reading.

The thing is, a lot of that research is publicly funded. We pay for it through our taxes - indirectly, of course, in the form of research grants and so on. So, as members of the public we pay for the research but we can't always get to read the results of that research. However you look at it, this is a really poor state of affairs, particularly when it comes to medical research.

It's not all bad. There are an increasing number of journals which are published on an open access basis. In other words the journals publish their work online and for free. Some journals, such as BMC Cancer, are well-established now, and publish high quality work that can be downloaded by anybody. In other cases journals make older articles available for free, so that for the first six months or a year a paper must be paid for, but after that it's free. Another option that some journals have adopted is to make selected articles free - which is good if it's one that you're looking for but rubbish if not. Finally, there are also some journals who allow access to articles by patients for free, but everyone else has to pay. Normally this involves filling in an online form to gain access to the article.

Aside from the open access approach, the other responses from publishers are less than ideal. At heart this comes down to money, and if we've paid for the research the we should have access to it when it's published. Not in six months or a years time. Not by having to fill in forms to make a special request. It's our right to have access to the papers as and when they are published.

Which is why it's interesting to read that the government is now looking into creating an open access policy. We can but hope that this actually leads somewhere, and that the day when you have to spend hundreds of pounds to gain access to research that we've paid for from the public purse is over. This is exactly the sort of policy that public health campaigners should be pushing.

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