By Bertalan Gyenes, Policy Officer, Association of Medical Research Charities 

Published: 17 April 2019

Here at AMRC, we aim to make sure that we keep our members up-to-date on important medical research issues. As part of this work, we often try to read original research articles – so you can imagine our frustration when we crash into paywalls.

AMRC has long supported the principles of Open Access – we released our first position statement on the issue back in 2014. But five years is a long time and the academic publishing sector has changed substantially since then. Two initiatives in particular have been making huge waves that will likely affect all of our members: the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment and Plan S.

In light of this, we have published an updated position statement providing our views. And as the publishing field can be fiendishly complex to understand, we have also published a frequently asked questions document – with answers included!

So what does AMRC think?

Many researchers and medical research charities, as well as businesses, lose the opportunity to access and reuse research to help uncover new knowledge and new cures, and to drive economic growth. More fundamentally, members of the public fund much of the UK’s academic research through their tax and donations – yet they have to pay a second time to be able to read the result of this research.

This is especially relevant to the medical research charity sector, as patients and the public are involved in our work in many different ways including as donors, strategy setters and participants. This is why our new position statement strongly supports open access initiatives, including DORA and Plan S.

What is DORA? It’s something to do with research assessment right?

Right. Determining what’s good research and what’s less good is difficult. If you have ever tried to read a research paper, you’ll know that they are very complex, so the temptation is understandable: can we use a single, numerical value to determine its value, perhaps linked to the journal it’s published in?

After decades of debate, much of the research community now agrees that the answer is no – the consensus is that the age-old expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover” applies to scientific publications as well. So how can research funders move forward? One path to a solution comes from the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). Signatories of DORA pledge to use a broad range of impact measures from a variety of research outputs (specifically excluding journal impact factors) when measuring the quality of scientific content. Such an approach is particularly pertinent to AMRC members who all want to use their resources in the most efficient way possible to bring about real improvement to patients’ lives.

And what about Plan S? Why are loads of people talking about it?

Several research funders have signed up to Plan S including Wellcome, UKRI, the Gates Foundation and the European Research Council. They call themselves cOAlition S and they expect all scientific publications that result from research funded by them to be completely Open Access starting in 2020. This is quite soon – but Plan S wants to Speed up the Solution for Science even if it’s a bit of a Shock. (Yes, the S stands for all of those!)

With an initiative of this size, there are some justifiable concerns, including some financial risk, as well as some potential impact on international collaborations and on learned societies – we address these in detail in our FAQ document. But when we take everything into account, Plan S is still a realistic and unique opportunity to move the sector forward, so AMRC are strongly supportive of it – although we do understand the specific concerns of some of our members.

Ok, so what does the future hold?

The future is arguably here. We have talked about the goals and principles behind Plan S and DORA for years but it is only now that there are realistic initiatives to reach them. We are at a pivotal moment where change is finally possible – but will DORA and Plan S be the drivers that will achieve this change? Our new position statement and frequently asked questions document aims to support our members in thinking about exactly that. Also, we recently launched AMRC Open Research, an online platform funded by some of our members that is compliant with both DORA and Plan S.

We are likely going to see many more publishing initiatives in the next few years, many of them impacting medical research charities – and here at AMRC, we are going to keep our finger on the pulse of the sector.