Meaningful open access – it’s the way you tell it

Posted on March 13, 2013 by


This week I chaired the panel of judges at the British Library’s Access to Understanding science writing competition organised in conjunction with Europe PubMed Central. Competition entrants, all PhDs or early career post-docs were asked to pick one of nine articles available on Europe PMC, several sponsored by AMRC members including Arthritis Research UK, Breakthrough Breast Cancer,  and BHF, and to summarise it in 800 words or less.

I was very pleased to be involved, not only because this may be as close as I will ever get to being a Man Booker judge, but also because of the important job this sort of competition is trying to do in highlighting the importance of free, open access for researchers and the general public to scientific journals; and encouraging scientists, both in academia and those who go on to work outside it, to develop the ability to explain to the world what they do and why it is valuable.

But there really is no point having open access to journals if what is in them is impenetrable. So whilst truly open access is most certainly about high quality articles free at the point of consumption to all readers it is also about ensuring proper lay summaries accompany those scientific papers that can reflect the research, its importance and also its limitations to the lay person. AMRC tackled this in our joint project a year or so ago with the Library, called Patients Participate.

So what made a winning lay summary?

Firstly we had a crop young scientists not afraid to tackle a range of complex scientific papers from the frankly bewildering “NLK is a novel therapeutic target for PTEN deficient tumour cells” to the slightly more decipherable “Evolutionary Biology and the Human Heel-Sole-Toe walking strategy”.

They had understood that writing lay summaries didn’t mean writing for the ‘hard of thinking’, but rather for a motivated lay reader who is interested in what the research says, why it might be important and what its shortcomings might be. A reader, in fact, who might well have donated money to help the research happen in the first place.

The best articles had three things – Curiosity, Clarity and Conviction.

Curiosity – did the article demonstrate the curiosity of the original researchers and did the writer present that curious journey to the reader? Without that an article could be very dull indeed. Thankfully few were in that category

Clarity – We judges didn’t want the Noddy Guide to Cell Biology, or Anthropological Biology in 3 Easy Steps. We wanted articles that were not afraid to tackle complex science clearly; to explain it respectfully and simply enough that the interested reader would follow.

Conviction – this perhaps the most important of all. We judges needed to have confidence in the writer – not only in what he chose to put in, but crucially what he chose to leave out. As readers we needed to feel that in the process of summarising we were not being misinformed or misled. That the summary was true to its scientific antecedent. So in summary the best writers:

  • Made complex science accessible without patronizing the reader
  • Drew out the “so what” question – why should I read this and why should I care?
  • Were frank about the unknowns and the limitations of the research
  • And they created energy and excitement of the advance without hyperbole or breathless overselling. None of those “cure for cancer found last Thursday in Leeds”… messages.

It was a cracking competition and the winners wrote brilliantly. I really hope this is something the British Library will make a regular event.

Open access – good in theory?

So what next? Once you have a great lay summary the next challenge is to make sure it and the paper itself are available to all. We at the AMRC believe that our members should be able to have free access to publications that arise from the research they fund. And that wider access to the outputs of that research, not only for researchers but for the public, is good for science. It really is an important way of maximising the value of charity research.

But it is a complex area and the devil as always is in the detail. The government’s current focus on what is known as “Gold Access” makes the costs of publishing the articles (the article processing charges, APCs) a charge to the researcher – and so will likely be passed on to the research funder. Things may come out in the wash for publicly funded research. Whilst the tax payer may have to cover the increased APCs in research projects they should also benefit from reduced university library charges (also tax-payer funded). However for charities, these APCs will just be increasing costs. There is no one else to bear these costs in charity funded research and and we believe many charities will be hard pressed to cover them.

We recently responded to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee consultation on open access, setting out our concerns and we will be sending round a survey to members to understand how many have an open access policy and the possible financial risks they observe so that we can develop a policy in our discussions with government. I know we are in survey season right now but it is a very important topic and if you can find time to respond, we are grateful. Thank you.

Posted in: AMRC, Policy, Research