HONcode Certified

This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.

This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information: verify here.


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?

At the BMJ today research misconduct in the UK was discussed amongst academics, journal editors, policy makers and others.

Why does scientific fraud occur? Among the incidents of scientific fraud that David Goodstein has reviewed, three motives are more or less always present. In all the cases individuals were under career pressure, thought they knew what the result would be if they went to all the trouble of doing the work properly, and were in a field in which studies are not expected to be precisely reproducible.

A case of prolonged research fraud by Diederik Stapel in the Netherlands highlights the closed culture that aids such deception: simply misconduct is more likely when there is less scrutiny.

Peter Wilmhurst, in the morning, talked about the case of Eastell who was suspended from Sheffield University, whislt Professor Clara Gumpert of the Karolinska Institute talked about the case of Suchitra Holgersson: a Karolinska scientist who tried to mislead with false documents.

Iain Chalmers talked about the extensive problems of research that remains unpublished “50% of results remain unpublished.” As far back as 1990, in JAMA, Chalmers published on this exact topic:

“Substantial numbers of clinical trials are never reported in print, and among those that are, many are not reported in sufficient detail to enable judgments to be made about the validity of their results. Failure to publish an adequate account of a well-designed clinical trial is a form of scientific misconduct that can lead those caring for patients to make inappropriate treatment decisions.”

Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, is instrumental in the BMJ's ongoing commitment to identifying and reporting on research misconduct. She spoke recently on the importance and relevance of this exact issue on the BBC: should all medical research be published?

Who can sort the problem out? Journals and their editors are not in a position to be the custodians of integrity. “Editors are not the individuals to investigate cases of research misconduct and the responsibility lies with the institution,” said Elizabeth Wager, chair of the committee on publication ethics. COPE as it is known is a forum for editors and publishers of peer-reviewed journals to address aspects of publication ethics. It also advises editors on what to do in cases of research and publication misconduct.

The morning meeting also discussed policies in the US, Sweden and Germany and their different approaches to research misconduct. It seems there is alot of it going on at the professorial level but also within Phds. Watch out for the BMJ survey coming this afternoon on research misconduct in the UK amongst clinical researchers. I bet it shows there is substantial misconduct going on. It seems to me the incentives are so great for academic to publish, or not in some cases, that it will be a hard problem to solve.

Thomas Kuhn, in 1962 wrote, scientific advancement is not evolutionary, but is a "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions", and in those revolutions "one conceptual world view is replaced by another". What he referred to as a 'paradigm shift.' A shift that is needed to force action and find solutions to research misconduct.

Twitter TrustTheEvidence.net


Search the TRIP Database

TRIP Database


Recent Comments