Open Access: Making Research More Transparent and Accessible

Sep 7, 2016, 9:31 AM, Posted by

Peer review and academic journals contribute to creation of sound scientific research. Alternatively, the Open Access movement seeks to breed innovation and maximize impact. We’re listening to both sides of this debate and researching the best way forward.

Open Access in Research PHOTO: h_pampel via flickr

Tradition in almost any discipline can be a solid foundation on which to soar. But tradition can also stifle new ideas. When we think about how science advances, there’s something to be said for giving tradition its due while also embracing new approaches.

Researchers have historically 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 solely to subscribers.

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 input on promotion and tenure decisions, enhance institutional prestige, and ensure the accuracy of information.

A Shift Toward Open Access

There have to be some solid reasons to reassess research and publication norms. For the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a primary consideration is whether doing so makes the work of our grantees more accessible, and leads to greater impact. For example, government agencies and workforce developers need access to research in order to shape sound policies that promote health and wellness. But multiple journal subscriptions and fees can prove to be cost prohibitive.

But what would happen if we made research accessible to the very people who need it?

Our 2016 funding opportunity, Increasing Openness and Transparency in Research, created a space to investigate the potential of both open science and open access.

Striking the Right Balance

There’s a lot of buzz around these approaches, and some feel strongly that they bolster evidence-based policymaking. 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. Some critics on both sides have resorted to pejorative language that has made measured conversations hard to hear.

In October 2015, RWJF convened a meeting of stakeholders interested in open access. Most were from philanthropies 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 conversations with our grantees to identify policies in place at their home institutions, and determine if they differ across university and non-university environments, and how they perceive transparency’s barriers and benefits.  

We generally believe that information sharing is good—it brings more talent and fresh concepts into the mix, breeds innovation, and leverages the work. Pushing research findings more quickly into practice also moves us closer to a Culture of Health. Equally important, broadening access to cutting-edge knowledge helps local health departments, community-based organizations, policymakers, and others who are pursuing greater health for all.

But what we’ve also learned 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.

What We’re Learning

RWJF has recently awarded six research grants to learn about opportunities for more open and transparent research.

The research is still in its early stages. Here’s what it’s looked at so far:

Facilitating the Use of Open Science to Advance Public Health Practice and Policy
The goal of this project is to encourage and facilitate open access to the computer code that analyzes data used in research. It offers transparency and it holds the potential to speed up research because others can reuse the same method and computer code to analyze other data. It does so by (1) partnering with public health researchers to develop guidelines for facilitating open access statistical code, (2) developing a toolkit for scientists on posting code on GitHub, an open-access repository for code developers, and (3)  pilot testing the practice of open-access code with a sample of recently published authors. The project is led by Jenine Harris, Washington University in St. Louis.

Advancing Open-Access Annotations to Enhance the Credibility of Qualitative Research
Qualitative data are diverse, and their analysis is interwoven through the text of publications and difficult to access. One proposed solution is the Annotation for Transparent Inquiry (ATI), which is an open-access annotation tool. It's primarily intended to help researchers share and discover digital annotations across the web. ATI was created by The Qualitative Data Repository (QDR) and The work will support collaboration with prominent publishers and scholars to develop 20 pilot projects that will illustrate the power and promise of open annotation, and facilitate the spread of its successful use. The project is led by Colin Elman, Syracuse University, and Diana Kapiszewski, Georgetown University.

Examining How Institutional Review Boards’ Processes Align with Promoting Transparency and Openness in Research
This project will investigate the intersection of open science and research ethics by surveying and interviewing Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) members who are responsible for ensuring ethical research practice. The research will look at whether policies that promote open science are compatible with protection of research participants. Findings will aim to clarify whether and how specific open science policies should be considered during IRB review of research studies. The project is led by Sean Grant and Kathryn Bouskill, RAND Corporation.

Strengthening the Ability of Funders to Increase Open Access Policy Compliance
Researchers will test a set of interventions (e.g. new technologies or incentives) designed to increase participation in an Open Access project. The goal will be to develop and share a toolkit of effective interventions that will increase the timeliness and comprehensiveness of free access to the grant-funded research results. The research is led by Mhel Kavanaugh-Lynch and Tyler Martz, University of California.

Converting a Leading Public Health Journal to Open Access and Developing a Sustainable Model for Other Publications
For the first time in their 85-year history, the highly cited journal the Annual Review of Public Health was published Open Access in the spring of 2017, making it freely available to read, reuse and share. All previous volumes are also now free to read. Annual Review’s next goal is to build a collective fund consisting of libraries, funding agencies, and public health stakeholders to keep this content open in perpetuity and share these experiences with other publishers, encouraging them to follow their lead. The project is led by Kamran Naim and Richard Gallagher, Annual Reviews.

Identifying Effective Methods for Data Policies
While some journals require authors to share the data underlying published findings, many of these policies lack a mechanism for data review and verification to ensure that the data are usable for validation and extension of scientific results. This project will help identify the most effective data policies and provide clear guidance on how to implement policies that support the discovery, accessibility, and usability of data underlying published articles. This research is led by Thu-Mai Christian and Todd J. Vision, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

We're excited to see how findings from these projects can help make research more open and transparent. We invite you to share your thoughts on these and other open access research questions.

Editor's note: this article was updated in May 2017 to include descriptions of research underway.

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.