The response to the global pandemic has demonstrated the huge value of open science, and a united front is needed to accelerate the transition toward this new way of working.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has been at the heart of COVID-19 research, providing guidance to decision-makers around the globe.
Our institution’s infectious decease modelling team, including Professor Graham Medley who is academic chair of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), have made near-daily media appearances to explain the latest COVID-19 developments and the importance of complying with restrictions. As part of the UK government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) this team is instrumental to informing policy in the UK and internationally.
We have an extraordinary number of academics and professional services staff who identify with our open access policy which states that ‘all research papers must be made available in open access (OA) form.’ As a result, in the 2020 CWTS Leiden Ranking indicators for all sciences, 90.7% of our publications were open access, ranking us second in the UK and third in the world for this indicator. OA is also one of the key objectives in the negotiations we have started with Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher.
Together with 157 other UK higher education and research institutions, we are negotiating a new agreement that will replace the current Science Direct contract, which expires at the end of 2021.
Most of our research output is published by Elsevier in journals including the Lancet and Social Science and Medicine,making an affordable agreement vital to us. As a research-intensive institution, 70% of our income comes from research grants. Paying article processing charges (APCs) to publish research OA eats into our research funding, which we would otherwise spend on the discovery of new insights.
Through the negotiations, we are looking to secure a transitional ‘read and publish’ agreement, which will reduce costs and pressure on the OA budgets by including APC payments ("publish" charges) within the overall spend on subscriptions to academic journals ("read" charges).
There’s a high level of resentment among our academics about these OA publishing charges. Academics provide the publishers with the fruits of their labour and do a huge amount of unpaid peer review and journal editing, yet they're expected to pay substantial charges. The estimated costs to UK researchers and their institutions of reviewing and editorial work might be up to £262m a year.
The LSHTM has a politically active research community, and also a high proportion of academics who are at the beginning of their careers. The majority of our research grants employ early or mid-career research staff.
These young people are socially and politically engaged. We’ve seen them on strike for better pensions, stand for Black Lives Matter and support decolonising global health movements. It wouldn’t surprise me if they took a stance on the Elsevier negotiations in the event of Elsevier not providing an agreement that meets the sector’s requirements. I’m sure that our researchers will be resourceful enough to find ways to continue their world-leading research even without access to Elsevier’s journals.
COVID-19 research has clearly demonstrated the benefits of publishing OA. Creating a research culture where making research openly available upon publication is the default requires a united front from university leaders and individual academics alike.
Moral support for this new paradigm is not enough, now is the time to bring costs down so that OA can be achieved in a sustainable way.