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Increasing access to journals through peer reviewers

Peter Gill
Last edited 23rd April 2012

A recent letter to the editor in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) highlighted a potential opportunity to increase access to subscription-based journals for individuals in low and middle-income countries. It turns out that a few journals give their peer reviewers’ free journal access or a free subscription as a thank you gift for their effort.

How widespread is this policy in the medical publishing world?

Unfortunately not very. Of the 21 journal editors contacted (including CMAJ, Lancet, BMJ, JAMA, etc.), only three actually provide reviewers with free journal access. The gift ranges from a 3-month (Lancet) to a 12-month subscription (BMJ and the Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability).

On the positive side, 20 out of the 21 journals were members of the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI), the World Health Organisation’s programme to provide free or low cost online access in the developing world to scientific research. This is encouraging, but HINARI is not perfect and many are still left without access.

For example, a BMJ Rapid Response highlighted that health care workers in middle-income countries such as Malaysia are often caught in the middle. Too rich for aid but not wealthy enough to afford the high cost of journal subscriptions.

However, despite the fact that most original research relevant to low and middle-income countries is open-access, the majority of the education articles, clinical reviews, news pieces and commentaries are still often behind firewalls that require payment.

The move for more open-access journals is encouraging. For example, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust will be launching eLife, a new open access journal later this year.

Why don’t more journals provide peer reviewers with free subscriptions? Not only is it a symbol of appreciation for the hours of gratuitous time altruistically invested but it could be used to help others. Likely there is no pressure or demand for it. The majority of peer reviewers are already at academic institutions with subscriptions.

Has this happened to you before? What have you done with this free gift? Although few journals seem to be endorsing this policy, it may serve as a small way to increase access to those who otherwise do not have it.

In the future, if you review an article for the BMJ, the Lancet or the Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability (or other journals that provide free subscriptions after peer reviewing), rather than deleting the email consider who might benefit.

If you review for a journal that does not, ask the editor why not?

The last couple of weeks have taught me a lot about how clinical research gets published and disseminated. On 1st February, our article, titled, “Familial History of Stroke Is Associated with Acute Coronary Syndromes in Women”, was published online by Circulation Cardiovascular Genetics prior to print. This is one of the subspeciality journals of “Circulation”, a publication aimed at scientists generally interested in cardiovascular medicine and research. Over the last few years, several of the major journals have increasingly multiplied into “sub-speciality journals”. For example, “Lancet” has spawned “Lancet Neurology”, “Lancet Infectious Diseases” and “Lancet Oncology”. Not only are the journals able to publish more specialised research that might have been rejected by the parent, general journal; they can also charge more for subscriptions, reprints and so on.

Interestingly, even as an author, I did not receive a copy of my manuscript and do not have access to the journal article, unless I pay for access or buy a reprint. So I will tell you what the gist of the research is. Basically, within the Oxford Vascular Study, a much studied cohort of 90 000 patients from the Oxfordshire general practice population, we looked at about 1000 patients with stroke and about 1000 patients with heart attacks.

Previous analyses from the same study have shown that women with stroke are twice as likely to have female relatives with stroke as male relatives with stroke. In addition, young women with heart attacks are twice as likely as young men with heart attacks to have mothers with heart attacks. Therefore, mother-to-daughter transmission seems to be important. For this reason we looked at family history of stroke in detail among patients with acute coronary syndromes (heart attacks and “unstable angina”).

Firstly, we found that family history of stroke is as common in heart attack patients as stroke patients. Secondly, women with heart attacks were twice as likely to have history of stroke in their mother as in their father. Thirdly, when we looked at the coronary arteries (which supply the heart) directly using coronary angiography, family history did not predict the location of the coronary artery disease or how severe it was. We concluded that family history of stroke needs to be studied in more detail and may well be important in better identifying women most at risk of heart attack, since women are less likely to be picked up by current risk prediction tools used by doctors. Also family history probably has its effect via influences on clotting rather than on arteries directly, given our lack of correlation with disease on angiography.

I spoke with only 1 freelance American journalist and helped write 2 press releases in the week before the article went online. On 1st February, I received an e-mail from the University that the article had been picked up by news brokering websites from Reuters to Yahoo, newspapers and TV from Canada and the Phillippines to India, South Africa and the UK tabloids. I don’t mind telling you I was surprised by all the interest! Even BBC Radio 4 contacted me to go on Woman’s Hour.

I have taken three lessons from this experience. First, a journal article will probably be read by almost nobody, primarily because it is published in a journal, and secondly because access to that journal requires money. Second, although research is published in journals, the immense speed and penetration of the global media/internet machine (based in this case on 3 interviews or press releases!) have led to the devolution of the dissemination of research findings away from journals, even though journals may be the trusted source of the original research. Third, as scientists, if we want our research to be understood by the broader public, then we need to do more than publish articles in journals, we must engage with the media and with the public. Both doctors and patients are more likely to use internet search engines than journals so we have to make sure that Google is well-informed, otherwise a great opportunity for health communication will be missed.

A confidentiality agreement, also known as a non disclosure agreement is a legally binding contract between two parties who wish to share information with one another, but wish to restrict access to others. Basically keep it a secret. They are used by companies when they are undertaking a potential business relationship. Some of these agreements are signed with employees or paid consultants, restricting the use of material and confidential information. In some circumstances the existence of such an agreement cannot be disclosed at all.

Some of you may have never even heard of such agreements or considered them important. However, in the last few years I’ve had numerous organizations approach me, mainly with regard to monitoring and diagnostic technologies. And even before talking, they want you to sign one of these confidentiality agreements or NDAs (non- disclosure agreement) as they are known in the trade.

To this, I have a perfectly simple answer. ‘If you want perfect confidentiality, then let’s not meet. Otherwise, if you want to keep it confidential then don’t mention it, but I won’t be signing any agreement now or in the future.’

So, when this week we find out from Fiona Godlee at the Council of Europe that:
‘Also worrying is the existence of a secret "emergency committee" which took key decisions relating to the pandemic: first the decision to downgrade the definition of pandemic in May 2009, and then to announce the pandemic one month later, triggering pre-established vaccine contracts around the world.’

Deborah Cohen’s investigative work on the WHO and the pandemic flu "conspiracies"
‘And why does the composition of the emergency committee from which Chan sought guidance remain a secret known only to those within WHO? We are left wondering whether major public health organisations are able to effectively manage the conflicts of interest that are inherent in medical science.’

Recently I gave a talk, and realized I was the only person not being paid in the room, and in doing so, was the only person who hadn’t signed up to a 5 year NDA.

Therefore, it is highly likely anyone who has a conflict of interest has signed an NDA previously, and has a major bias. As of now this should be added to journal submissions as part of the conflict of interest statement and be disclosed by public committee that set our health policies – In fact, if you’ve signed one of these you shouldn’t be allowed on the committees in the first place.

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