Help Make Research More Transparent and More Accessible

Sep 7, 2016, 9:31 AM, Posted by Margaret Tait, Oktawia Wojcik

Opening up access to research has the potential to breed innovation and maximize impact, reaching a wider audience that can apply knowledge toward building a Culture of Health.  

Open Access in Research PHOTO: h_pampel via flickr

Tradition in almost any discipline can be a solid foundation on which to soar, but it can also be confining, an easy excuse to tamp down on new ideas. When we think about how science advances, there is something to be said for giving tradition its due while also having the flexibility to embrace new approaches. 

Historically, researchers have shielded their data, methods, tools, and findings until they have been submitted for peer review and published in an academic journal. The publisher has generally then made the articles available only to readers with a subscription.

There are many sound reasons for this time-honored system. It can safeguard the privacy of study subjects, protect the rigor of the investigation process, provide measurable input on promotion and tenure decisions, enhance institutional prestige, and ensure the accuracy of information likely to influence practice.

A Shift Toward Open Access

Given all that, there have to be some very solid reasons to reassess research and publication norms. For the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a primary consideration is whether doing so can make the work of our grantees more accessible, and extend the impact of our research investments. For example, government agencies and workforce developers need access to research in order to make sound policies that promote health and wellness, but multiple journal subscriptions and fees can prove to be cost prohibitive. What if the objective is to make research accessible to the very people who need it? How would norms change?

Our new Call for Proposals, Increasing Openness and Transparency in Research, creates a space to investigate the potential. Over the past year, we have become very interested in both open science and open access:

  • Open science, as defined in a blog post from Duke University Libraries, calls for transparency across the research lifecycle, so that the pathway taken to acquire information, as well as the information itself, can be shared with anyone who is interested in understanding or extending the work.
  • Open access, according to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), is “the free, immediate online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment.”

There is a lot of buzz around these approaches, and some strong feelings that they represent vital new ways of bolstering evidence-based policymaking and doing business that mesh well with 21st-century communication technologies and contemporary notions about the power of the crowd.

Striking the Right Balance

But the topic has generated fierce debate. A skeptical New England Journal of Medicine “Perspectives” piece challenges the caliber of many open-access journals, and their impact on the scientific record. Open-access advocates counter by pointing out the imperfections in traditional scholarly publishing, as in this blog. Some critics on both sides have resorted to pejorative language that has made measured conversations hard to hear.

Last October, RWJF convened a meeting of stakeholders interested in open access. Most were from philanthropic organizations that fund research in the U.S., some came from academic, government and publishing settings, including international partners with diverse open access experience. We’ve also had a lot of conversations with our grantees to find out what policies are in place at their home institutions, whether they differ across university and non-university environments, and how they perceive transparency’s barriers and benefits.  

As a general principle, we believe that information sharing is good—it brings more talent and fresh concepts into the mix, breeds innovation, and leverages the work. By pushing research findings more quickly into practice, we also think it moves the goalpost of a Culture of Health forward. Equally important, broadening access to cutting-edge knowledge benefits local health departments, community-based organizations, policymakers, and others who need to be on the team pursuing greater health for all.

But what we have learned also clarified why the concepts of openness and transparency make people anxious. Not all open-access journals conduct adequate peer review, article processing charges can be expensive, and some bad actors have emerged that are neither selective nor rigorous in what they publish. Sharing data widely also adds a new set of challenges to study subject confidentiality and the consent process.

So if we’re going to reconsider tradition, we need to do it carefully.

Help Us Be Creative

RWJF’s Call for Proposals suggests some avenues we hope to investigate, but we very much welcome other ideas. Show us what works to create more effective collaborations and generate an actionable evidence base more quickly.

One approach is to build a business case that open access is economically viable—and indeed, that without a powerful digital footprint, journals risk losing readers. We’re also looking for opportunities to “nudge” universities and journals to implement relatively small policy changes that begin to redirect the research behemoth. Proposals to align open science with Institutional Review Board protocols, promote efficiencies in the peer review process, burnish the reputation of open-access journals, and foster greater collaboration are also of interest. Letters of intent are due October 5, 2016.

To learn more about the Increasing Openness and Transparency in Research Call for Proposals, join the informational webinar on September 16.  


About the Authors

Oktawia Wójcik is an epidemiologist and a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read her full bio.

Margaret Tait is a senior research assistant at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.