The Road to Global Open Research is Paved with Good Intentions

Author: Emma Ganley

protocols.io embraces open access with users all around the world.

It’s Open Access week — yayyy — always a good time to take stock of advances or hiccups in the road to open access. We started out the week with a great short video of protocols.io’s CEO, Lenny Teytelman on how we’re approaching the current issues flagged by this week’s open access week around the need for structural equity and inclusion — if you’ve not seen that yet, you can watch it here. As I’m a recent addition to the protocols.io team, this seems like a good time for me to look at how we do open access here at protocols.io.

In the pursuit of open access, open data, open knowledge and open research in recent years, emerging business models for openness have sometimes been co-opted for financial gain by commercial entities. The internet was (and still is) a global leveller, but it’s fair to say that we haven’t yet plumbed the depths of its capabilities. It’s an amazing time to watch progress and growth while the world explores the internet’s potential; to see the growing awareness of potential perils and pitfalls that can sometimes come with progress. Changes may be lauded by some as fantastic advances but will not be welcomed and may present a tangible threat to other existing enterprises. Sometimes adaptations may involve co-opting a business model in a way that subverts the original intent, like the double-dip fee for immediate open access at an otherwise subscription journal. At an immediate glance the resulting rise in percent of fully open access papers makes this seem like a great outcome, but as has become evident this has diverted open access funds to profiteering publishers who have added to their already immense revenues with this other income source. This has now been seen, and acted upon, as PlanS and funders are being clearer about where funds to pay for open access to research may and may not be used.

Global access remains a huge challenge — some countries and funders can provide pots of money for open access publishing, open data, or other open initiatives — but many can not. It was interesting at OASPA recently to hear and read discussions between participants about global North and South, and how this terminology does not successfully capture the issue or disparities. But it’s clear that there are some who can and many who cannot. Privilege is a thing in research, and it can impact perceptions and values, and it absolutely impacts access. Those at well funded institutions regardless of country will have access to more literature and resources than those in poorer institutions. And if the privilege that comes with affiliation is immense, then the privilege that comes with the country is ginormous. We can cut the data many ways, but the conclusions would be the same — access is not equal and to assume that others have the same access and opportunities as you do will always be incorrect.

What’s great is that there’s been a spate of exciting announcements very recently. HHMI and Templeton World Charitable Foundation both signed up to PlanS (see here, here, & here), (the latter also to DORA). And PLOS recently announced their new Community Action Publishing (CAP) model exploring a way for their two selective titles PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine to move away from APCs to a different community funded mechanism. Although the APC model has moved Open Access publishing towards a much higher percentage of papers published OA, in a Newtonian equal and opposite reaction sort-of-way, it has also become an issue in recent years as a (sometimes expensive) barrier to quite a lot of researchers (also for selective journals, it may not actually cover the full costs of publication). Experiments and pilots of new approaches to support open access publishing may not be a quick-fix, but they are really fantastic to see. It’s funny to observe how many form preconceived notions about the values and the value of organisations based on whether they’re for profit or not-for-profit, or open source or not. As a society we’re often quick to judge and condemn without considering all of the facts or being open to people trying out different models and mechanisms to achieve the same ultimate goal.

From the time of launch, protocols.io was set up with openness and open access as a core mission and value of the organisation. From day one, OA was written into our Terms of Service, all published protocols are open access with a CC BY license by default (no other options are given). Anyone can create an account on protocols.io, create protocols and publish them for free — as many as they like with zero charge. We effectively have no barriers to open access for all research protocols. What’s truly brilliant about this is that even if a researcher hasn’t managed to publish an article open access, if they’ve placed the granular details about their methods into a repository like protocols.io, then their approach will be available for anyone to find. And all of these published protocols are available regardless of where any potential interested viewer/user is located, as long as they have an internet connection and means to search the web.

It’s wonderful to take a look at our analytics to see where our users are located. And they are everywhere, literally dotted all around the globe. There are more in some locations than others, granted, but since Jan 1, 2020, we’ve seen users from all continents (and very nearly all countries).

Screenshot of map captured from google analytics on Oct 19 2020 and represents users of protocols.io from Jan 1 2020 — Oct 19 2020.

From outreach email efforts to researchers in some more far flung countries, responses are often from people grateful to have been made aware of protocols.io as a resource where they can find important protocols as much as somewhere for them to store their own approaches.

In the protocols.io Coronavirus Method Development Community, we saw discussions around how best to ensure some countries without the same means could effectively manage and oversee testing for COVID-19. A global pandemic has at least served to highlight a greater need for full, immediate, open access to important research and our community has provided one location for method sharing (we’ve also seen content presenting SOPs for researchers to get back to the lab safely, and for phase 3 vaccine clinical trials).

From a preservation perspective, protocols.io belongs to CLOCKSS and all of our published content is mirrored on both github and the Iinternet Aarchive. But anyone could also use our API to access our content, and published content can also be exported in a variety of formats.

Let’s hope we see ongoing global exploration of mechanisms and business models via which open access to all scholarly content can be achieved. It’s important to be tolerant, open-minded, and refrain from leaping to judge as different approaches are experimented with. It feels like the start of a new era for open research as we’ve learnt from earlier mistakes and are now managing to move towards a more equitable future, and I for one am excited to see what might be coming next.

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A secure platform for developing and sharing reproducible methods.