Cochrane's sustainable path to open access

Open access logo showing an unlocked padlock symbol with the words 'OPEN ACCESS' on the right

At the Cochrane Collaboration, open science has long been at the heart of our ethos. From publishing free plain language summaries in multiple languages to making study data available, we have always strived to make our evidence accessible, transparent and useful to as many people as possible.

Since 2013, we’ve made all Cochrane reviews freely available 12 months after publication and all protocols freely available immediately. Over 3 billion people worldwide have immediate access to all content through national access agreements and our free access offering to over 100 low- and middle-income countries.

We’d like to go further to ensure that everyone can benefit from access to Cochrane evidence. However, in this challenging funding environment, we still need income to keep producing and publishing the reviews that are trusted by researchers, clinicians and policymakers worldwide.

We have to balance our open access ambitions with our responsibility to run the charity sustainably. A model that made our content free, but deprived us of the income to produce or publish it in the first place, would be of little benefit to anyone. Our original ambition was to make all Cochrane reviews open by 2025 if we could identify a financially sustainable path to get there, without putting the onus on authors. However, it became clear that this would not be possible in that timescale. While full open access remains our ambition, we have to be realistic about how long this will take and are exploring ways to broaden access to our content in the meantime.

Standing by our principles

Our independence is one of our core founding principles; we do not accept donations or sponsorship from conflicted sources, such as pharmaceutical or medical device companies. That makes us unusual among medical and scientific charities, many of which rely on corporate benefactors to pay the bills. Not Cochrane. As a charity that publishes impartial assessments of many medical interventions and diagnostics produced and promoted by corporations, we have a strong conflict of interest policy to protect our content from undue influence.

We want our reviews to be accessible to as many people as possible, but we won’t compromise our principles or quality. The complexity of producing, editing and publishing systematic reviews makes Cochrane a poor fit for the current ‘gold’ open access model, where authors pay a fee to cover publishing costs. Conducting and publishing systematic reviews is neither cheap nor easy, and this vital work needs to be funded.

Investing in the future

As we can’t make everything open access immediately, we are working with our publisher, Wiley, to broaden global access to Cochrane content while ensuring we can still produce it.

We are working together to significantly expand free public access worldwide. Fourteen countries currently have national provisions whereby government agencies sponsor free public access for everyone in the country. Visitors from those countries do not encounter paywalls and can access Cochrane Library content without logging in. Building on this, we aim to unlock content for large regions when a critical mass of countries within the region subscribe to the Cochrane Library via national provisions. We will work towards this goal collaboratively with Cochrane groups across the world, national funding agencies and Wiley.

We intend to make all review protocols open access from 2025 onwards with a CC-BY license and are exploring open access for other outputs such as editorials and plain language summaries. We will continue to invest in our open access journal, Cochrane Evidence Synthesis and Methods, helping the global evidence synthesis community to keep up with the latest methodological developments. We may also add other open access journals to our core database of products in the future.

Looking ahead

We are still working out the details of our long-term transition to open access, but we are confident that we will arrive at a sustainable solution that balances the needs of authors, readers and subscribers. The Cochrane Collaboration was founded 30 years ago to fill a crucial evidence gap, and we need to preserve our income and integrity to ensure we can continue to fulfil our mission in the decades to come. We hope that you will support us on this journey as we strive to produce the best health evidence and make it accessible to everyone, everywhere.

Monday, April 8, 2024