sharing science & ethics for health

In the BMJ Opinion on 25 January 2019, Richard Smith discusses the interests and challenges Open Pharma members have expressed regarding following or joining cOAlition S and supporting the Plan S movement in open publication.

My experience teaching research methodology and research integrity at all levels of the university since 1989 suggests that how we read determines how we write, and these together determine how we understand ourselves and the world. Today’s digital revolution brings with it fundamental changes in how we do science, introducing new norms for writing and publishing. It is no longer sufficient to collect data, interpret it, and publish findings that engage one’s interpretation of data with the published findings and interpretations of others. Today scientific publications need to be open to meta-analyses whereby the findings and arguments can be challenged by the data underlying the publications. Publishing means, not only publishing results, but also publishing the underlying data. Thus, both the published data and the published findings are open to challenge.

Further, the original 17th Century journals of scientific academies and societies became outsourced for both their editing and publication to professional and commercial organisations. The output of science has become a business that has overwhelmed the resources of universities and scientists and made it into an exclusive domain of subscription and pay-per-view. The science that was paid for by public funds or private investment has become the property of a separate industry that sells the science already paid for back to the public, universities, and the research industries. For most scientists, working in the public or private spheres, their jobs, their tenure, and their prospects depend upon businesses to whom they freely give the fruits of their labor and then are required to pay to share it with others or have their colleagues forced to pay to read it. 

As Richard Smith points out, the strength of the journals lies in their ability to brand: scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and even products win bragging points through ‘impact factors’ and perceived views of so-called Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). This is surely no way to measure the value of scientific research or the safety and efficacy of a medicinal product, medical device, or surgical intervention. Science was never about opinions, majority view, or popularity. 

While Plan S has been designed for publicly funded research, the six pharmaceutical companies that are part of Open Pharma should also be applauded for their willingness to engage science as an open activity. cOAlition S is currently funded by 13 national research funding organisations and 3 charitable foundations, together with the European Commission and the European Research Council. Both Open Pharma and cOAlition S are to be valued. But the real changes will come about when scientists themselves recognise the elusive world of putting their research into commercial organisations is not the best way to serve either them or their science. 

Open publication is essential to open science. Open science is required for an open society. Further, in the area of health-related research, open science is necessary for fair and equitable access to medicines and access to all medical technologies. We will never achieve ‘patient-centric medicine’ when healthcare workers and patients are systematically excluded from access to the scientific bases of the treatments they prescribe or receive. 

It is up to the scientists to define and protect their science. They must find, and insist upon, ways to ensure their science thrives with new methodologies, new technologies, and new ways of reading and writing as well as new media for presenting and challenging their findings.

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