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12 posts categorized "Open access"

08 June 2017

Untangling academic publishing

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Untangling Academic Publishing logo. Creator uncredited, published under CC-BY

On the 25th of May we attended the launch of the report Untangling Academic Publishing by Aileen Fyfe and others ( The report describes the history of scholarly publishing from the nineteenth century to the modern era of open access, “crises” in affordability of journals and books, and controversy over commercial publishers’ profits and competing business models.

The report discusses the post-WWII evolution of scholarly publishing from an original model where learned societies saw dissemination of research results as simply a part of their essential activity, with no expectations of profit and many copies of journals distributed free to public, academic and scholarly subscription libraries. After WWII an alliance became formed with profit-seeking scholarly publishers, under the pressure of the increasing quantity of publically-funded academic research and increasingly large numbers of universities and professional researchers in the developed world, and a growing proliferation of subdisciplines. Commercial publishers turned scholarly publication into a profitable business by setting up journals for subdisciplines without their own journals or learned societies, selling to institutions, and internationalising the market.

It was during this time that the current system of peer review was developed, and publication metrics became increasingly used to assess the prestige of individual academics and reward them with career progression and funding.

However, since the 1980s this period of close association between the interests of scholars and commercial publishers has ended, due to further expansion of the research base, reduced library budgets due to inflation and cuts in funding, and in the UK specifically issues related to exchange rates. University libraries have struggled to afford journal subscriptions and monograph purchases, leading to a vicious circle of declining sales and increasing costs. Increasingly scholars at all but the wealthiest institutions have found themselves unable to legally obtain material that they need to read, and resentment of the profit margins made by the “big four” commercial scholarly publishers in particular has developed.

Hopes that digital publication would allow cost-cutting have failed to materialise, with publishers arguing that the actual costs of distributing and printing hard copy publications are relatively small compared to editorial costs, and that providing online access mechanisms with the robustness and additional features that users want is not as cheap as some initial enthusiasts assumed. Open access, which covers a variety of business models not based on charging for access at the point of use, has been promoted for almost twenty years, but has failed to replace subscription publishing or, to a great extent, to challenge the market dominance of major commercial publishers, with much open access publishing based on the “gold” business model funded by article processing charges paid by authors or research funders, often offered by commercial publishers as an alternative. Hence universities often find themselves faced with paying both subscriptions and article processing charges instead of just subscriptions, and mechanisms offered by publishers to offset one against the other have been criticised as lacking transparency.

At the event, there were presentations by Dr. Fyfe, her co-author Stephen Curry (whose views can be found here), and David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate of Research England. Mr. Sweeney welcomed the report for describing the situation without demonising any parties, and pointed out that publishers are adding value and innovating. He suggested that a major current issue is that academics who choose how to publish their work have no real connection to the way that it is paid for – either by their institutional libraries paying subscriptions or by funders paying APC’s – and hence are often not aware of this as an issue. It was pointed out in discussion after the event that the conversation about publishing models is still almost completely among librarians and publishers, with few authors involved unless they are very interested in the subject – the report is aimed partly at raising awareness of the issues among authors.

The general argument of the report is that it is time to look again at whether learned societies should be taking more of a role in research dissemination and maybe financially supporting it, with particular criticism of those learned societies who contract out production of their publications to commercial publishers and do not pay attention to those publishers’ policies and behaviour. Although there is no direct allusion, it is interesting that soon after the report’s launch, this post was published on Scholarly Kitchen, discussing the concept of society-funded publication and putting forward the name of “diamond open access” for it.

27 March 2015

Access to Understanding 2015: Who Won What?

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With the Access to Understanding awards ceremony just about wrapping up, we can now announce the winners…

First place was awarded to Philippa Matthews for her entry ‘Rolling back malaria: A journey through space and time’, which described research exploring the changing patterns of malaria risk across Africa. The piece was praised by our judges for its enthusiasm, clear writing style, and sense of narrative; “using the facts to tell the story” with a “sense that the research team were on an expedition”. Congratulations Philippa!


Second place went to Juliet Lamb for her entry ‘Who you are, or who you’re with? Age predicts disease risk’. The judges felt that it was “confidently written” and did a “great job of clarifying the use of mathematical models in research”. And third place was awarded to Peter Canning for his entry ‘Breaking through cancer’s acid shell’ which “didn’t shy away from the hard science” of drug absorption in the acidic environment around tumours.

And finally, the People’s Choice Award – a key part of our competition – read by you and voted for by you. The overwhelming response to the award, with over 1600 votes across all entries, yet again demonstrates the public appetite for accessible science writing. This year’s winner with over 400 votes was Sabrina Talukdar with her entry ‘The persistent perils of puberty’. One reader commented that it was a “well written piece, making the original paper very accessible to lay people” which is exactly what Access to Understanding is about.

The standard of entries this year was very high, and it’s great to see the enthusiasm, talent and motivation of all the scientists who entered the competition.

You can read all of the shortlisted articles on our website, with topics ranging from body clocks to tinnitus. If you want to delve deeper, every article is also accompanied with a link to the original research paper freely available from Europe PMC – the European gateway to biomedical research.

Boudewijn Dominicus

11 November 2014

Science writing competition - now open for entries!

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We are excited to announce the launch of 2015's Access to Understanding science writing competition - a prestigious, international competition aimed at PhD students and early career post-doctoral researchers where the challenge is to summarise a cutting-edge research article for a non-specialist audience.

The winner will receive an iPad and have their entry published in eLife. Read on for more…

A2U competition flyer_2015

For more information:


The competition is developed by the British Library, eLife and Europe PMC for Access to Understanding. It is supported by the Europe PMC Funders.

Access to Understanding is a collaboration promoting wider understanding of biomedical research findings.

03 November 2014

Access to Understanding

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This week we share the final video from our Beautiful Science events season - the Access to Understanding science writing competition.

‘Access to Understanding’ is a science writing competition that challenges early career researchers to summarize a recent biomedical research article for a public audience.  The competition is delivered by the British Library in partnership with Europe PMC – the free life sciences information resource.  Although the move towards open access publishing means that scientific research is more easily accessible, access does not always equate to understanding as scientific papers often contain highly specific technical language. Access to Understanding aims to bridge this gap between access and understanding. 

Winning entrants were recognised at a prestigious awards ceremony, which included speeches by Sharmila Nebhrajani (Association of Medical Research Charities) and the Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport on the importance of communicating science in an understandable way. As keynote speaker Sir Mark Walport said, “Science is for everyone - not just to be shared within a small closed community”.

First place went to Elizabeth Kirkham for her entry which explained research investigating the role of the brain in musical beat prediction and was published by eLife. 2014 also saw the launch of the People’s Choice award, which invited members of public to vote for their favourite shortlisted entry. You can read all the winning entries in the competition booklet

This year’s Access to Understanding competition launches later in November. We’ll be sharing more information on this blog very soon so stay tuned!

Katie Howe

07 July 2014

Crick retreat moves forward

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Katie Howe reflects on the 3rd Francis Crick Institute post-docs’ retreat held at the British Library in June.

Over the past few years Team ScienceBL have watched with interest over the building site located at the north end of the British Library’s St Pancras site. The building under construction is the Francis Crick Institute, which when it opens its doors in 2015 will be a leading centre for biomedical research employing over 1000 scientists.

The Francis Crick Institute - viewed from the ScienceBL office window

We are excited that the Francis Crick Institute will be our newest neighbour and were particularly pleased to collaborate with the Crick on this year’s post-docs’ retreat. The event was hosted at the British Library Conference Centre and brought together about 200 post-doctoral researchers from the Crick’s partner institutes for an interactive day of science, careers and networking. This is the third such retreat and the second time we have hosted the event here at the British Library.

The programme was organised by a committee of post-docs from the Crick’s partner institutes and included a range of sessions, covering everything from careers advice to the parasitic behaviour of cuckoos. There was plenty of time for scientists from all six institutes to get to know each other over lunch and in the coffee breaks as well as during a dedicated post-doc networking session. One thing that stood out for me was the non-linear career trajectories that were followed by many of the speakers. Especially enlightening in this regard were talks from Dr Nessa Carey and Prof Mark Lythgoe, both of whom had had varied and non-conventional career paths before ending up where they are now. This was a very refreshing insight for early career researchers who are considering their career options.

L to R: The post-doc networking session; Nessa Carey (Photos: David Bacon, LRI)

The ScienceBL team were pleased to be invited to host a session entitled ‘Open Access for Early Career Researchers’. From our work with biomedical researchers we know that it is not always clear what is meant by the term Open Access and so in this session we wanted to shed some light on this complicated and often misunderstood area. Our own Anna Kinsey (EuropePMC Engagement Manager) kicked off the session by breaking down some common misconceptions about Open Access and explaining what it means for researchers. Anna went on to explain how EuropePMC can help biomedical researchers access a wide range of Open Access content. The Open Access session also included a thought-provoking talk from Steve Royle (Senior Cancer Research UK fellow at Warwick University) who shared his perspectives on Open Access publishing from the point of view of an early career researcher. Steve pointed out some of the pros and cons of publishing your research Open Access and explained why he felt that it is important for early career researchers to embrace this new development in publishing practice.

The Crick-BL retreat was finished off with a drinks reception in the Library’s terrace restaurant overlooking the Crick building before the post-docs headed off on an urban orienteering trail around the St Pancras area. We think we can safely say a good time was had by all and we look forward to working with the Crick in future years!

Katie Howe

10 January 2014

Gathering dust? Opening up access to PhD research

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In our first blog post of 2014, Katie Howe explores another of the services that we offer to contemporary researchers - the British Library’s e-thesis collection, EThOS.

I finished my PhD in 2012. Four years of blood, sweat and tears were summed up in one 200 page document neatly bound in blue cotton. But who has actually read my thesis? Well, my supervisor read it very closely, suggesting many alterations and improvements. My viva examiners read it. I like to think that contemporary members of my old lab might refer to it when working on some of the methods I developed. But what about its wider impact? Is my thesis destined to gather dust or simply be used as a bookend?

Theses cropped
PhD theses ready for submission (Photo: Katie Howe)

My thesis is deposited in the UCL Discovery repository and the full text will soon be available via the British Library’s e-thesis service, EThOS, meaning that people will be able to access the information even though much of the data hasn’t been published in an academic journal. EThOS works by harvesting information from university and institutional repositories, thereby creating a single point of access for doctoral theses from across the UK. The EThOS website has records for over 300,000 UK theses and for 100,000 of these, it is possible to access the full text instantly - either by downloading directly from EThOS or via a link to the relevant institutional website. If you haven’t used EThOS before then you can give it a try here. The great thing about EThOS is that it can be accessed remotely, from all over the world. You can use it to search and read theses on your topic of interest, or to research the work of individuals in your field. EThOS can also be useful in finding out how to structure a thesis and some people even use it for leisure purposes in researching their own interests.

As one user noted, “a wealth of primary data is buried in theses, which can shed light on very interesting areas that may have been missed for decades”. PhD theses are increasingly recognised as important sources of information and although the UK’s open access initiatives relate mainly to journal articles, open access to PhD theses has been embraced by UK universities and research councils. Nowadays, many institutions require PhD graduates to deposit their thesis in a local repository and services such as EThOS facilitate access to this material.

EThOS contains records for over 300,000 UK theses (Image: Shutterstock)

Although my thesis might not quite be worthy of a Nobel Prize, having it available on EThOS will undoubtedly increase the visibility of the unpublished information within it. With about 35,000 theses viewed per month on EThOS, hopefully someone will find my thesis useful rather than having it languishing on my bookshelf gathering dust.

Katie Howe

15 November 2013

Explaining Focal Osteoporosis to My Gran

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As the BL Science Team and Europe PubMed Central launch the second year of Access to Understanding, a plain English science writing competition, Allan Sudlow reflects on the challenges of explaining science to a broad audience.

Scientific journal articles are written by scientists to be read by other scientists. Those scientists are usually experts on the topic they are reading about. Thus, journal articles tend to be written in a highly technical style, laden with acronyms and jargon, and this ‘compressed’ language is used to squeeze in as many facts as possible, within a given word count. There is a huge amount of assumed knowledge needed to even begin to understand what is being said. Scientists fall into writing in this way as it’s the most efficient way of communicating with their peers. But what about others who are interested in the latest research findings but aren’t part of this scientific community?

Access to Understanding is a science writing competition aimed at early career scientists organised by the Science Team at the British Library, in collaboration with Europe PubMed Central. Competition entrants choose from a selection of free-to-access articles in this online biomedical literature resource, and describe the science in 800 words or less. They need to explain, in plain English, the reason why the research was done, what the scientists found, and why those findings are important. This is challenging.


Source: Shutterstock Copyright: Ivelin Radkov

Entries need to be self-explanatory and represent the science accurately. Entrants are encouraged to be informative but not patronising, and engaging without over-selling the importance of the research findings. Knowing your audience is key but this, in itself, is not easy when that audience can be anyone who is interested enough to read the summary. The advice we have provided to competition entrants aims to address some of these challenges by setting out specifics in the context of the competition, giving helpful writing tips, and highlighting the views of the judges of the 2013 competition.

So, why would any jobbing scientist want to enter the Access to Understanding competition in the first place?   Well, I predicted the number of entries last year as 50. We received just under 400. This was a fantastic response and it was interesting to hear some of the motivations that the entrants had for taking on this difficult challenge. For some, it was recognising the importance of communicating cutting-edge science beyond their own community, for others it was developing their writing skills in this context. Some scientists saw this as a way to showcase these skills to a broader audience, and have since gone on to pursue their interests in this domain, entering further science writing competitions and seeking employment in roles that require an ability to write about science for a broad audience.


Source: Shutterstock Copyright: Sebastian Kaulitzki

To me, the challenges and the motivations for entering a competition like Access to Understanding, are summed up by the slightly obscure title of this blog post. Before you lambast me, I recognise that many grandmothers may be scientific or clinical research experts, though not mine! Last year’s competition entrants and judges agreed that being able to explain a complex piece of science to a relative who as has no knowledge of the subject, and keep them interested, is a great test of your ability to communicate science effectively. So if you have heard of ‘osteoporosis’ but aren’t sure what factors influence how and why it happens, find out more by reading about it and other scientific findings, beautifully explained, in the shortlisted entries from 2013.

Good luck to all this year’s entrants to Access to Understanding. We will be reading and evaluating your entries with critical interest, and admiration!

13 November 2013

Science-writing competition

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Access to Understanding is a prestigious, international science-writing competition aimed at PhD students and early career post-doctoral researchers, developed by Europe PubMed Central and The British Library.

The winner will receive an iPad and have their entry published in eLife. Read on for more…

Access to Understanding 2014 flyer

For more information:

Access to Understanding is supported by the Europe PubMed Central Funders Group.

25 October 2013

How open is it?

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Elizabeth Newbold explains why not everything is as straightforward as it may appear for a science librarian dealing with Open Access content

It is Open Access week and sitting in an office with Anna Kinsey, the Engagement Manager for Europe PubMedCentral, Open Access has obviously been a topic of conversation. Anna has written a blog outlining some of her frustrations with Open Access. I’m not going to repeat them (I recommend reading her post) but in conversation with her it made me think about some of my own frustrations, as a librarian, dealing with free-to-access content.

A timely incident highlighted one of the frustrations we face as librarians in providing access to content. This week I had a question from a colleague, who asked “why can I access this article?” Possibly a slightly unusual question, as we are much more likely to be asked, “why can’t I access …”.and a surprising one, as it took longer to answer than we thought.

In the past, the simple response - “because we have a subscription to the journal” - is actually no longer always true or sufficient. Alternative answers, such as “because it’s open access” or “because it’s freely available” need to be considered. And in this particular case we actually needed to know why we had access, since the mode of access would determine how the reader could use the article.

We started with the first question – do we have a subscription? In this case, the answer was no, so we needed to see why we had access, which is where it started to get complicated. The obvious next thought would be is it an OA journal or OA article? In some cases this is easy to ascertain but not always! So my frustration is the lack of clear identification and consistent explanations regarding OA material. Words such as “free”, “freely available”, “free access”, “open research”, “open”, “open access” are used seemingly interchangeably – all adding to the confusion. It is especially so when we move outside the realms of STM journals and look at the ever increasing and varied amount of other freely available content. Information about the access and restrictions which apply to the material are often hidden away on web pages that are difficult to find. This week I finally found the explanation I needed on the ‘information for librarians’ page. Luckily, I’m a librarian so I looked there but would a non-librarian have found it?

This example may seem like a small issue but it highlights increasing fragmentation when we need to be able to easily and consistently identify why we can access something, otherwise we don’t know how it can be used. 

Whilst the OA symbol originally designed by the Public Library of Science has been used to good effect – wouldn’t it be nice if there was a universally accepted and adopted set of symbols to help identify Open Access material and navigate through the maze?

27 September 2013

Seek, but shall ye find?

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Johanna Kieniewicz explores information access across the environment sector, and what the British Library is doing to improve its discoverability.

When I was doing my PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences, I had exceptionally good access to the information required for my research. I was doing my degree at a major US research university that had excellent print and online journal subscriptions - and on the occasion that I required something a little more unusual, such as a PhD thesis, our departmental librarians were only too happy to request it by inter-library loan. And indeed now, working at the British Library, I find myself once again with exceptionally good access to any piece of information I could possibly want.

Researching the information use of researchers and practitioners across the environment sector, I now realise how fortunate I have been. Extensive journal subscriptions are often prohibitively expensive for many charities, small businesses and local government departments. And, while resources such as government reports and PhD theses might be free and contain really useful information, they are often difficult to track down. A couple of years ago, I surveyed a wide range of researchers and practitioners from the flooding sector about their information access. This group included not just academics, but also people working for local government, environmental charities, consultants and small businesses. Were they happy with their current access to information? What barriers did they encounter in trying to get the information they needed for their work?


ES info use
We asked researchers across the flooding community to rank the factors creating barriers to information. The boxes highlighted as 1st and 2nd indicate their most significant barriers.

Not surprisingly, pretty much everyone reported either money or time as their greatest barrier to the information they needed for their work. However, digging a bit deeper, they also reported difficulty actually discovering the information itself - or filtering through to get at the stuff actually relevant to their work. For a flooding practitioner interested in the impact of Thames flooding on London, their first port of call might well be a Google search: Thames flooding London (or something similar). However, this search would bring back first news articles first, not the Environment Agency report, which is actually what they need.

Our survey also showed that environmental information access is also far from equal. We asked the flooding community what information they now find crucial to their research (red dots below), and what they might potentially use with improved access (yellow dots). While the behaviour of academic researchers might not change that much, that of people working for NGOs/charities, local government, the private sector would change tremendously. While being more financially pressured, they are also often more pressed for time, with tight deadlines, multiple priorities, and little time to spend searching for (letting alone reading) information. We found that government reports, datasets and legislation were real priorities across the board, but also a real interest in less conventional outputs such as PhD theses.

ES Info sectors
Red dots represent resources that researchers considered crucial to their work. Yellow dots indicate resources that they would use more with better access.

So we in the Science Team at the British Library wondered if we could improve things. As a library, we have a duty to facilitate access to information and help users discover the research they need for their work. But most environmental scientists aren’t interested in coming into libraries - they would like electronic access, pdfs they can download, whether they are in the office, lab or field. Would there be a way in which we could make more of what we already do as a library but make the information available to users electronically, wherever they are?

The search interface for Envia, the new environmental information discovery tool from the British Library.

Envia is a new tool developed by the Science Team, with support from the Living With Environmental Change partnership, to improve environmental information access and discovery. Bringing together often hard-to-find government reports, PhD theses, data resources, and journal articles (soon!), we aim to enable the easy search and discovery of resources relevant to flooding (we thought all of environmental science might be a bit much to tackle in one go, so have narrowed down to flooding for the Beta). Rather than viewing ourselves as a ‘one stop shop’ for flooding information, we view Envia as an important tool for connecting  users to information - whether it’s in the Envia repository or elsewhere on the web. Envia might be accessed through its website at - but we also intend it to be used via search boxes embedded in users’ browsers or our partners’ websites.

We have now launched Envia as a Beta service. This means we are still adding content and developing its functionality and looking for feedback from users. So please try it and let us know what you think. User involvement has been integral to the Envia project from the beginning as we are keen to develop a tool that meets the needs of our users - particularly those who don’t have the kind of access to information I was privileged to have during my PhD.