Open Access: Breaking Barriers for Quality Research

By Alissa Kocer

In today's digital age, we’re flooded with information, but not all of it is high-quality or free. Open access journals offer a solution, providing top-notch articles on the internet without restrictions.

As the Duke University Medical Center Library & Archives recognizes International Open Access (OA) Week, Oct. 23-29, it celebrates a bold strategic partnership that’s dismantling publishing fees for Duke scholars.

This year’s theme, “Community Over Commercialization,” puts the spotlight on prioritizing the public over profits, and rethinking how we share knowledge.

Building Community Through Access   
Catherine Staton, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, stresses the need to make top-tier research available everywhere, especially in areas with limited resources.

She co-directs the Global Emergency Medicine Innovation and Implementation (GEMINI) Research Center, which brings together multi-disciplinary global faculty and learners to innovate and solve access challenges in low- and middle-income settings.

“Almost all of the work we do is in a low-resource setting,” Staton said. “Every time we work with our partners, the first thing they say is that they don’t have access to the published data because it’s not open access and their institutions aren’t able to support it, never mind the internet challenges.”

Staton’s group has committed to ensuring that all of her partners are part of OA manuscripts. “Without open access,” she said, “once we publish, that material will be restricted from the people we’ve created it for, so not only is it not disseminated to those who need it most, but it’s also not disseminated to those who participated.”

She is part of collaborations in Tanzania and Brazil and is working with local partners in each location to build capacity to conduct research that addresses the locally-relevant questions in accessing care and emergency care. The work includes creating interventions for alcohol harm reduction, distributing health care resources, and making sure anti-venom is accessible in the locations where snake bites are more likely to occur.

“That leads us back to open access,” Staton said. “A lot of our partners have come to us to say they can’t publish because their work in their native language and they are having difficulty with scientific writing in English.”

In her partnership, Staton and her team teach scientific writing in English, help edit and translate scientific papers into English, and work to reduce other barriers to publication for their partners.

“We’re all in this together to solve health challenges that patients and populations have,” Staton said, “and our work helps increase the impact of the work our partners are doing. Overall, the science has a broader impact once it’s in open access.”

Creating a Better Informed Society  
Joseph Heitman, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, is focused on the good open access has to offer, especially for those who aren’t in an academic setting.

“Many people don’t have the benefit of the subscriptions that an academic library has access to.” Heitman said. “They may not even be active scientists, but they still might be very interested in reading a scientific paper that maybe they saw a news article about or heard about on NPR.”

Providing access to peer-reviewed science articles allows more people to engage with science and learn more about how the world works. “I think,” Heitman said, “the more people reading science, the better.”

Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. People were hungry for information on what scientists were learning about the disease, which increased interest in accessing the primary literature that went well beyond the scientific community.

The flip side to that, as Heitman noted, was that there is also an entire movement dedicated to raising concerns about science and vaccines. “We are nation of independent thinkers,” he said, “and I would welcome people to take more of an active role in considering the sources of the information they are digesting.”

OA makes that more of a possibility.

Bold Publishing Pivot  
Open access may be free to readers, but it still comes at a cost. Instead of publishers charging  readers or institutions for a subscription, authors pay article processing charges. Most journals charge $1,000 - $5,000 in article processing charges, but some elite journals charge as high as $10,000 or more.

“The cost is exponential for our partners,” Staton said. “One manuscript can be $3000 to publish, which is over two months of salary for my Brazilian and Tanzanian faculty partners.”  Splitting the cost can be an effective way to handle it, but, as Staton said, “when there is a high income partner and a low income partner, how do you split that cost equitably?”

In January 2023, Duke University Libraries and the Duke Medical Center Library took a significant step forward. They inked a two-year publishing agreement with the Public Library of Science (PLOS), a renowned non-profit scientific publisher with a global reach. This strategic move is designed to make quality research accessible without the financial hurdles, furthering the cause of open access.

The PLOS agreement expands publishing opportunities for all Duke authors by eliminating he expensive article processing charges, which can range from $800 - $5,300 per article for PLOS journals.

"We are delighted to partner with the university library,” said Megan von Isenburg, Associate Dean for Library Services and Archives at the School of Medicine, “not only to reduce barriers to publishing open access, but also to further the reach of Duke research."

Steps to Maximize Open Access Benefits

For more information about International Open Access Week, please visit The official hashtag of Open Access Week is #OAweek.