Summary: Participatory medicine flourishes where there is an unimpeded flow of information. Open and freely available access to medical research improves outcomes and empowers e-patients. Traditionally, research papers undergo peer review before publication. Two trends, open access and social media, are changing the peer review process. E-patients must be aware that traditional peer review applies different criteria and methods than review through social media outlets. Although still developing, these review processes may affect the evaluation of research quality.
Keywords: Open access, social media, peer review, participatory medicine, e-patients.
Citation: Pickard KT. Impact of open access and social media on scientific research. J Participat Med. 2012 Jul 18; 4:e15.
Published: July 18, 2012.
Competing Interests: The author has declared that no competing interests exist.

About Open Access

Today, the work product of most scientific research is the peer-reviewed research article. Each year, over 2.5 million articles are published in over 24,000 peer-review journals.[1] Access to these research papers is closed to many potential readers because they cannot afford access; open access seeks to make this research freely available. According to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, open access achieves its goal of “free and unrestricted online availability” through two central tenets: (1) depositing refereed journal articles in open online archives (called self-archiving), and (2) creating new journals that will not invoke copyright to restrict access to the material they publish.[2] Today, open access journals often employ Creative Commons licenses to ensure unrestricted access.[3][4] Although over 5,000 open access journals are available today, only 10% of published research in biology and medicine is open access.[5]

In open access journals, authors typically pay to publish their research. In non-open access journals, journal subscription fees typically fund access and publication. Open access leaders such as BioMed Central, Frontiers, and PLoS charge an average of $2,500 to publish peer-reviewed open access articles. In 2012, a new open access journal, eLife, will be waiving submission fees during an initial period.[6]

E-Patients and Open Access

In 2008, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which directed the National Institutes of Health to create a public access policy for NIH funded research.[7] The result, PubMed Central, is a free full-text archive with over 2.4 million biomedicine and life science articles.[8] It is a valuable and free resource for e-patients, whose stories highlight the importance of public access to scientific literature.[9][10]

Open Access Methods

Most journals allow scientists to post published papers on their own websites. A website that combines social networking and open access, ResearchGate, allows scientists to self-archive their research papers. This practice is beneficial to ResearchGate, which has indexed over 10 million open access articles to date. Especially popular with scientists working in medicine and biology, the site has approximately 1.7 million users.[11][12]

Another publishing route is through preprint sites based on the arXiv model pioneered over 20 years ago. Information is disseminated rapidly, but papers submitted are not subject to traditional peer review.[13] A preprint site for biology and medicine, F1000 Research, is expected in 2012. Other commercial tools and sites such as EndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley are automating research workflow. Mendeley, with over 34 million research papers, also incorporates an academic social network.[14] PaperCritic, which works in tandem with Mendeley, allows scientists to review each other’s work, but adoption may be limited until the number of reviewers increases to a point where other researchers find it valuable to participate. Wikis and blogs are also being used to enhance collaborative research.[15]

Open Access and Social Media

Over fifty years ago, Eugene Garfield, a founder in the field of bibliometrics, introduced the concept of the citation index.[16] His ideas have blossomed into a host of “impact factors” that measure the degree of a journal’s influence by counting the number of times its articles are cited. Since academic advancement is tied to publication, most researchers submit articles to high impact journals, even though acceptance rates can be in the single digits.[17]

Although open access articles may be accessed more frequently, traditional impact factors measure citations rather than readership.[18] Using impact factor measurements from sources such as Journal Citation Reports, scientific journals with the highest impact factors are not open access.[19] In certain fields such as biology, however, open access journals rate highly.[20] When open access is combined with social media, the influence of research articles shifts from publications to individual researchers. For example, in a recent controversial paper illustrating the influence of social media, future research citations were correlated with the number of times the article was discussed on Twitter, especially within the first three days after publication.[21] Subsequent criticism from bloggers triggered a correction to the paper, showing post-publication benefits from social media.[22][23] The use of blogging to challenge the results of a microbiology paper published in Science produced similar effects.[24]

Peer Review Alternatives

A formidable challenge to the current process is the movement to reimagine the peer review model. A growing number of individual scientists has argued for improving peer review.[25][26][27][28] Critics argue that the peer review process is slow, stifles innovation, and lacks transparency (most reviewers remain anonymous). With social networks, alternatives to peer review are emerging. The most commonly employed model is based on comment crowdsourcing, similar to how buyers rate products and sellers on Amazon or eBay. Anonymous peer review is replaced with public reviews that can include the reviewer’s reputation (as determined by peers) to weight the review score. Weighting an author’s reputation can be achieved with concepts such as the author’s scholar factor, h-index, or other “altmetrics.[29][30][31]” For example, Google Scholar Metrics uses the h-index concept to allow researchers to gauge the influence of recently published articles.[32] As open publishing platforms such as F1000 Research, PeerJ, and the Journal of Participatory Medicine emerge, alternatives to traditional peer review may gain acceptance.[33][34][35] These platforms employ concepts such as invited moderation, post-publication comment, post-publication measures of quality and impact, and community-based review.[36][37] If opinion formation shifts through the influence of social media on research, academics may have to worry about “get visible or vanish” instead of “publish or perish.[38]” Indeed, developing a comprehensive online presence increases the likelihood that research published in open access journals will be found, read, and cited by other journalists, e-patients, and scientists.


How social media will influence the peer review process is an ongoing debate. The crucial step for the research community is to adopt a model that incorporates the validation and critical review of results. E-patients must be aware that traditional peer review applies different criteria and methods from review through social media outlets. Although developing rapidly, these review processes may affect the evaluation of research quality. In a world where increasingly more people are actively participating to improve their health, often collectively, open access methods will be required to disseminate research results. Social networks will undoubtedly play a growing role.


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The author would like to acknowledge Kimberly Pickard, Melanie Swan, and the JoPM reviewers for their assistance and insightful suggestions.

Copyright: © 2012 K. Thomas Pickard. Published here under license by The Journal of Participatory Medicine. Copyright for this article is retained by the author, with first publication rights granted to the Journal of Participatory Medicine. All journal content, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. By virtue of their appearance in this open-access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.