Open Access, and why it matters to medical students.

David Jakabek on new ways that medical students get information & the role of Open Access



Twitter: @AMSJteam

Medical students are consumers of research output, but are also under increased requirements to become producers of research content. Open Access (OA) has clear advantages from both perspectives.

Students access research literature across both pre-clinical and clinical phases. In both instances, students are encouraged to consult a variety of sources, ranging from traditional textbooks to more current journal articles, with the aim of forming a solid and current knowledge base. Additionally, medical school curricula feature assignments where students are required to gain skills in searching and evaluating research literature. Since medical students encounter research output in a variety of ways, any methods which facilitate these process are encouraged.

OA allows medical students to draw on a wider array of research output than would otherwise be possible. Increasing journal numbers mean that university libraries are unable to afford subscriptions to quality indexed journals. Frequently a “perfect” article is found, only to soon realise it’s behind a paywall with no library journal subscription. The option of paying $US30-40 for access to single paper is rarely palatable for a student budget. For the same reason that OA is said to bring knowledge to developing nations, local medical students can have access to a wider array of research to incorporate into their knowledge base.

Moreover, newer developments in OA are quickly gaining momentum. Some OA resources such as Wikipedia are not completely reliable, and alternatives such as Free Open Access Meducation (FOAM) resources are gaining popularity. The fantastic and heavily-Australian contributed Life In The Fastlane has quickly become a go-to reference for up to date information into emergency medicine and critical care; in some cases it surpasses even traditional textbooks. These developments provide access to new research, or new ways of looking at existing research. Without the open access component it’s unlikely such a resource would have gained the popularity and support of senior clinicians to generate quality content.

Not only is research important for medical students as consumers, but it is also important for medical students as burgeoning clinician-researchers. The majority (if not all) medical curricula contain some research component, where students carry out and report on their own research projects. This element is only set to expand with the introduction of MD-titled masters-level medical degrees. These MD degrees have as a requirement a substantial research project. With such a growth in medical student research, there is wide scope to encourage OA publication.

Poised to take advantage of this increased research focus, the Australian Medical Student Journal is approaching its 7th volume and has utilised the OA model (though not currently with CC  licenses) from its inception. The OA model has brought with it some challenges, but predominantly there is a benefit for students.

The reward for students is primarily one of access. We are a small journal and a subscription model is unlikely to be successful given the competition for library subscription fees. By being OA, our articles are able to be read worldwide, and thus student work is able to be cited and incorporated into the global scientific discussion. Our citation rate is gradually increasing over time, judging by the citations on Google Scholar, and this would not be possible without an OA model.

In addition, the journal has adopted the OA ethos of expanding access to information by accepting papers of more specialist scientific interest. This is beneficial to students since medical student research projects are more focused on demonstrating competent and sound research design and conduct, with a lower importance of the impact of results. As such, we are able to accept publications which would be typically rejected from subscription journals due to a lack of general interest. In contrast, a subscription model would place a greater focus on selecting higher impact publications, which in turn would conflict with the primary aim of medical student research.

We do not charge article processing charges for publishing and one major difficulty for us being OA has been the absence of revenue from these (or subscriptions). At times it has been challenging to run the journal with a volunteer staff and a budget primarily derived from advertising. However, it has meant that all medical students are easily able to submit their work for consideration without additional financial burdens. Ultimately we aim to encourage research and publication, and the more barriers which we can remove, the better we will achieve this aim.

Medical students have much to gain from OA; both as authors providing access to their scientific developments to a broad audience, to readers needing to gain large amounts of current information from a wide variety of sources. By utilising OA at the Australian Medical Student Journal we hope to demonstrate the benefit of OA and encourage its uptake to future generations of our clinician-researchers.

Competing interests: David Jakabek is the Editor in Chief of the Australian Medical Student Journal

 About the author: David is currently a final-year medical student at the University of Wollongong

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