"Open Medicine" Closes Down Raising Questions on Sustainability of Open Access Journals

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One of the first open access, online journals I started reading was Open Medicine, not because I was a crusader for open science of anything, but simply because I had Googled “open access medicine journal” and had happened to land on that particular site! Subsequently, as I got familiarised with the terrain of open access publication, I started looking at more and more journals and somehow, OM slipped out of my reading list. Still, it was a considerable shock when I received an email on the OKFN/Open Access mailing list where they had forwarded an article in OM stating that the journal was closing down.

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In their final editorial, Kendall et al take a gloomy, melancholic tone as they make no secret of the fact that the journal is being shut down for sustainability issues. While it is a very romantic idea to have an open access journal run by academics, for academics, without any interference from financial considerations, unfortunately, in the end, The Joker’s words stand true:

 

Joker's Wisdom
Joker’s Wisdom

I have been reading and re-reading the editorial in OM these past few days and have drawn some sustenance from the concluding paragraph, where, though the editors reiterate that they shall be closing submissions for the foreseeable future, the passion remains and the core group that came together to found the journal are still looking for ways to keep the movement alive. The editorial ends on a somewhat hopeful note when they state:

We survey the landscape of publishing in general and see questions and struggles everywhere. If articles are made freely available, how does one assign them value? How can one capture the dozens of hours that went into reviewing, editing, and publishing an important article? Are there better ways to do biomedical research and report it, thus enhancing its ability to improve health and health care? We know there are. Although we are not accepting submissions for the foreseeable future, our enthusiasm for what gathered us around Open Medicine remains, and a few of us are exploring possibilities about how we might continue, re-visioned. In that spirit, we will keep our eyes intently focused on the horizon, alert to new opportunities to make medicine as open as possible, so that no one is excluded from the benefits of medical knowledge and research.

They do raise a few fundamental issues that have cropped up in the past few years since open access went “mainstream” with academics and scientific scholars all over the world. While all open access journals have had to face stiff challenge from such issues, I guess it becomes even more difficult to weather those storms when you are not backed by a giant publication company to help in the war of attrition.

Despite these achievements by Open Medicine, and progress in the landscape of scientific publishing more generally, further change is needed. First, while there has been a substantial shift toward making articles freely available, whether in scientific journals or in institutional repositories, many of our colleagues still do not understand that, in view of the restrictions imposed by traditional copyright licences, “free to read” doesn’t necessarily mean free to distribute or to create derivative works. Second, budget lines for open access fees in grant funding are rarely adequate, are often incorporated with skepticism, and are generally used with reluctance. Third, many traditional toll-access publishers have capitalized on the open access movement by adopting the appearance, but not the spirit, of open access, charging hefty subscription fees to individuals and libraries while offering free access after charging a substantial fee to their authors. This double-dipping leaves little incentive to adopt new models and further entrenches an unfavourable view of open access. Finally, the onslaught of predatory journals has added confusion to the mix by causing authors to associate publication charges with unscrupulous behaviour.

Open Medicine closing down may not substantially alter the domain of open access publications, but it sure does touch a personal chord with me. I identified with the principles outlines in one of the previous editorials in the journals where the need to have “Open Medicine” was outlined. As a struggling medical student with no source of income and completely dependant on parental support for existence, navigating paywalls was a painful experience. So, when I read these words, in a published article, in a scholarly journal, I was not just surprised, but also elated!

Unfortunately, physicians attempting to answer a clinical question are faced with two unappealing options: to navigate a sea of unedited pages of varying quality, or to pay for access to more carefully reviewed scholarly information. It seems an anathema to the spirit of medical research that, largely for economic reasons, the information it produces remains hidden from many potential users. Access is limited not only for health professionals in poorer countries, but also for health care providers in wealthy countries (most of whom do not have “free” access to information unless they work in universities), and for patients, who deserve the opportunity to become informed about research that affects their lives. The transformation of research findings and discussion of the results — the application of knowledge — is curtailed. Just as importantly, the debate over its merit is stifled before it can properly begin.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much of a ripple in academia over the closing of this journal. And even if there is, then it is not in the circles I wander about in. Only one of the blogs I frequent (although, to be entirely honest I have been very lax in reading and writing blogs of late!) has covered this news.

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“Open Medicine” is dead: Long live Open Access.

Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!

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