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Securing affordable public access is the right thing to do in the long run for the benefit of science

“Securing affordable public access is the right thing to do in the long run for the benefit of science”
Name: Prof. Philippe Grandjean
Position: Professor of Environmental Medicine and Founding Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Health and Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health
Expertise: Environmental epidemiology, adverse health effects of early-life exposures to chemical hazards
Institution: University of Southern Denmark
Country: Denmark
More info: Twitter Other

ORCID ID: 0000-0003-4046-9658

An interview with Prof. Philippe Grandjean on 19 September 2016

What originally got you interested in Open Access?

In 2002 I received an e-mail from BioMed Central. They wanted to start a new journal in my field, environmental health, and they inquired if I might be interested, since I was already on multiple editorial boards of related journals. I had already been thinking about the new opportunity created by the speed and accessibility of the Internet, and so had my colleague Professor David Ozonoff from Boston University, with whom I became Editor-in-Chief. Now, more than a decade later, we can look back and assess if our ambitions were realistic.

Why, in your opinion, do we need Open Access to research?

Open Access publishing is particularly relevant in environmental health because the field directly relates to decisions in society, issues that often attract public attention. To make the best possible decisions as a society, documentation on environmental hazards should be shared with the public, policy makers, the private sector, and other interested parties. In other words, the results of such concerning science should be widely accessible to all, with no excessive fees to pay, particularly since science is often financed by public funds. My ambition was therefore to use the Open Access opportunity to help environmental health research become more readily available and thereby more useful.

Shortly after Dr. Ozonoff and I started our OA journal in 2002, a major journal in the field followed suit – published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health – and also became Open Access. We take some pride in paving the way for two journals in environmental health to go OA. As newcomers, we had to establish our journal as a solid and attractive resource, which took some time. At least two measures suggest that we have been successful. A traditional measure is the so-called Impact Factor, and this rating soon put us in the top quarter of indexed journals in the public health and epidemiology sectors.

A more appropriate measuring parameter, to my mind, is download statistics. We publish articles as soon as authors have approved the final formatting. Within weeks after release, most articles are being accessed from the journal website hundreds of times (articles can also be downloaded from other servers, so the numbers retrieved are not total accesses). Several articles that we have published have been downloaded more than 100,000 times. In my opinion, that is a stellar success. Can you imagine print journals being pulled out from library shelves and scrutinized in reading rooms or photocopied 100,000 times? Our OA journal has therefore helped our field make a true contribution to public health.

While we don’t know who our readers are, I have my doubts as to whether all downloads are due to the keen interest of our colleagues in the field of environmental health. The largest of our professional societies has no more than a few thousand members. So the numbers point to an interest beyond academic institutions, certainly including scientists in other scientific fields, but also the general public, governmental agencies, related industries, and others around the world. The fact that the articles that we publish are downloaded this often clearly documents that we’re doing the right thing.

Achievements are due to a team effort, involving highly-respected associate editors, an impressive editorial board, and countless reviewers. They all believe in the project, and they support OA, as we do, by working for free.

There is a cost, of course, and revenue is needed to pay for the server, the website, and staff. Our journal belongs to a commercial publisher, which has now been acquired by a large publishing group. The business model is to charge authors a processing fee, and we have seen it inching steadily upwards over the years. We have no say in these matters, but we worry when our colleagues complain that they have insufficient funds to pay the fee. All I can respond is that my colleagues and I work for free.

What are the challenges with OA publishing?

The trend of increasing author costs to pay for publishing is worrisome. Even though the fees can often be covered by research grants, by institutional subsidies, or in some cases by a waiver issued by the publisher, it is clear that OA publishing has developed into a profitable operation where revenue is key. Authors and editors are essentially in the hands of business managers whose main purpose is to create revenue, not to disseminate science in the public interest.

The consequence is that researchers can choose to publish at no cost to themselves in expensive subscription journals to which the public has no easy access, or they can pay a sometimes stiff fee for OA. As a public servant with a full-time academic position, I am further removed from the financial aspects of running the journal. I am uncomfortable about urging my colleagues to submit to our journal for a fee and thereby subsidising a commercial business. On the other hand, I am deeply convinced of the value of OA to public health. This is a conundrum I haven’t yet resolved.

Open Access is a success, and I hope it will become the default publication mode, at least in environmental health. But its success has also made OA an attractive commercial activity. Most dramatically, this is illustrated by burgeoning Internet publishers who offer rapid publication, for a fee, in journals with insufficient (or even non-existent) quality controls. So the success of OA has revealed weaknesses in the publication model, as seen from a research and a public access point of view. Solutions are not easy.

However, while the emergence of OA journals constitutes a highly successful achievement, persuading publishers that securing affordable public access is the right thing to do in the long run, for the benefit of science, remains a challenge.

Nonetheless, our achievements make me optimistic about the future. We have our colleagues’ support, the journal is highly respected, and our published articles have achieved a dissemination that we could not have dreamt of. However, while the emergence of OA journals constitutes a highly successful achievement, persuading publishers that securing affordable public access is the right thing to do in the long run, for the benefit of science, remains a challenge. The use of the Internet already means that scientists no longer depend upon the capital needed to print and distribute scientific information. However, excessive charges for OA journal publication may help inspire other means of efficient and inexpensive dissemination through cheap or free Open Source platforms. The Welcome Trust, a major research funder, has already established its own publication platform for disseminating the results from funded projects. Further such platforms will undoubtedly emerge.

Copyright: Anne Thorst Melbye, University Library of the University of Southern Denmark. Creative Commons CC-BY Licence.

Tags: OA journal, OA publishing, Open Access, accessibility, business models, dissemination, download statistics, impact factor, journal publishing, profits, public funds, research assessment, revenue, society, the public

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