Pharmaceutical companies should publish more research open access

Many organisations are working towards making scientific publications more transparent, discoverable, accessible, and accountable, but wouldn’t it be better if all these organisations could work together? In June, Open Pharma, a programme to encourage pharmaceutical companies to adopt open access and other innovations in science publishing, brought together pharmaceutical companies, publishers, editors, academics, patients, and others to discuss how they could hasten the modernisation of science publishing.

Pharmaceutical companies fund around half of all biomedical research, but, in contrast to many public funders of research, only two companies (Takeda and Ipsen) mandate that all the research they fund must be published open access. Nevertheless, other pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, are able to publish up to three quarters of the research they fund open access without a mandateThis is not bad when less than 50% of research overall is published open access.

Many companies fund both internal research conducted by their employees and external research by independent academics. Some pharmaceutical companies have been particularly reluctant to mandate external academics publishing open access as there are journals, mainly high-impact ones, that will either not allow open access at all or will not allow full open access (with a CC-BY licence): the choice of authors is thus limited. Here the choice is limited by publishers, but at the same time paradoxically, ironically, and hypocritically the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors now recommends that policies that dictate where authors may publish their work violate the principle of academic freedom, making it unacceptable for funders to mandate open access (which many public funders have already done). These policies all have a financial basis in that reprints of pharmaceutical-company-sponsored studies are an important source of revenue (and big source of profit) to some publishers, and the mandating of open access threatens the subscription model of publishers.

Open Pharma has produced a position statement on open access that calls for journals to give authors who are publishing research funded by pharmaceutical companies the same rights as authors of research funded by public funders. In the 9 months since its launch, the position statement has gained over 150 endorsements, including eight publisher and 29 pharmaceutical company endorsements.

The liveliest part of the roundtable meeting was when patients called for full open access to research. Patients have not usually been included in debates about open access because they have not been considered to be “end users” of research. Nowadays, not only do patients participate at each stage of the research life cycle, from clinical trial design to establishing patient-reported outcome measurements, but they are also increasingly involved in the creation and curation of scientific studies. Yet patients can access no more than one-quarter of published clinical research. 

Many patients, particularly those with rare conditions, want access to the full content of scientific studies, but there is also demand—from professionals as well as patients—for engaging and understandable reports in non-technical language. Plain language summaries are ideal for communicating research to patients and the public in a concise, accurate, and understandable way. Several pharmaceutical companies are exploring the use of plain language summaries alongside conference proceedings and peer-reviewed publications, but the companies must comply with strict regulations. For this reason they would like plain language summaries to be peer reviewed alongside the corresponding articles, but most publishers are currently not resourced to do this.

Patients and others are calling for an increase in open access, and the covid-19 pandemic has made it happen. It’s simply not acceptable to hide research that may help in countering the pandemic behind paywalls. Why shouldn’t it be the same for all biomedical research? There has been a huge increase in preprints, and the evolutionary genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was published on the preprint server medRxiv 65 days before it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Despite the clear benefits of preprints, most pharmaceutical companies remain sceptical about using them because of the lack of formal peer review.

It became apparent during the roundtable meeting that, although opinions on the most effective ways to improve the transparency, discoverability, accessibility, and accountability of scientific research varied among the different stakeholders in academic publishing, there is a clear need to standardise processes across funders, publishers, and organisations. Working together, these diverse stakeholders can maximize dissemination and real-world impact of the research we undertake with and for patients.

Steph MacDonald, medical writer, Oxford PharmaGenesis

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interests: SM is an employee of Oxford PharmaGenesis, which founded and supports Open Pharma. RS is the chair of Open Pharma and has been paid for some of the time he works on the programme.