We must not sacrifice accuracy for publication speed

For a successful transition to open access, we must respect the needs and requirements for different types of output and disciplines, says Rhodri Jackson

November 14, 2020
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Open access (OA) has been the defining story of academic publishing for the past 15 years. The discourse has changed from whether to move to OA to how to move and, now, how fast to move.

On the launch of Plan S in 2018, Science Europe president Marc Schiltz stated that “progress has been slow” and that “a decisive step…needs to be taken now”: hence the push from the Coalition S consortium of funders for the research they underwrite to be published open access from next year. In February, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) unveiled its own draft proposals for all the research articles it funds to be immediately open access.

But the question about the pace of the transition continues to be divisive. Many submissions to UKRI’s subsequent consultation on its plans called for a measured approach to ensure that the transition avoids unintended consequences. There are strong suggestions that the pace of change should vary by subject areas or by formats, such as journals and books.

At Oxford University Press (OUP), 24 per cent of our articles have been published immediately OA in 2020 – up from 19 per cent in 2018. That already makes us the largest university press publisher of OA content, and the OA proportion will only grow in coming years – particularly in the wake of Covid-19.

The pandemic has proved the value of access to high-quality peer-reviewed research for clinicians, scientists, governments and academics alike, and OUP is one of the many publishers and research organisations that signed policy statements on sharing research findings and data relating to Covid-19. We have also made all our content on Covid-19 freely available, and these resources have since been viewed more than 14 million times.

The financial issues created by the pandemic will cause institutions, funders and publishers to re-examine their priorities – perhaps leading to further commitment to OA. Even before the pandemic, many governments saw open access as key to harnessing the full power of their science bases to drive economic growth; in a recent speech, science minister Amanda Solloway reaffirmed the UK government’s commitment to full and immediate OA to all publicly funded research for this precise reason.

We at OUP see OA as a public good and a key means by which we fulfil our mission. However, while we should be pleased that the value of research and the need for OA is being recognised, we should be alert to the risk that access could be prioritised over quality. A major part of the role we play as a publisher is making sure that research is substantiated by data and evidence and is reviewed by peers.

This role has never been so important given current concerns about the ease with which fake news can spread. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen misinformation widely and rapidly circulated both in scholarly circles and among the general population; Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, has complained of an “infodemic” of fake medical news. This damages trust in research and can minimise its impact. At a time when we’re depending on scientific research to help us navigate and emerge from the pandemic, we can’t afford to let that happen.

That doesn’t mean slowing down change, putting up barriers to access or focusing on limited methods of evaluating quality. Rather, it means high standards of rigour, commitment to innovation and ensuring fast publication of crucial research. It means high-quality peer-reviewed journals co-existing with open platforms that enable rapid dissemination of initial findings, recognising that they fulfil different functions in disseminating and validating research.

OUP has already launched some important innovations. For example, we have set up a fast publication track for Covid-19 papers, whereby many of our journals prioritise the peer review and assessment of those papers. We’ve coupled this with support for the Wellcome Trust’s statement on Covid-19, which requires the initial research behind those papers to be available on preprint servers.

We know that moving towards OA is in the interests of universities, researchers, governments and the public. For a successful transition, which has quality at its heart, we must work together as an academic community, respect the differing needs and requirements for different types of output and disciplines, and learn from each other.

The cooperative spirit seen in the response of the scholarly publishing community to the pandemic is inspiring. Let’s build upon this to make the move to open access a success.

Rhodri Jackson is publishing director for open access at Oxford University Press.

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