by Elisabeth Wilson
While we often think of research as physical data collection, in reality it’s much more than that. In most organizations, the number one thing you need to do when building a research and evaluation team is to cultivate support for their work. I learned this first-hand at the Indiana Department of Child Services, where I built out a research team. I spent 75 percent of my time cultivating support and breaking down barriers to getting the job done.
While I could write a dissertation on all of the barriers to research, I want to talk about one in particular that philanthropy can immediately help solve: the lack of open access publishing.
Access to research is expensive. Researchers are required to pay expensive publishing fees to an academic journal. Fees can range anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 per research article, depending on the journal. Unless an individual or an institution pays the open access fee, new research is kept behind a paywall where only subscribers are able to read it. As of 2021, more than 70 percent of all research articles were located behind a paywall. This is a massive problem that prevents new, exciting research from reaching the people who need it most.
“There’s growing recognition that academic, peer-reviewed publications ought to be open access,” explained John Fluke, a professor in pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and an expert on child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment. “One of the major drawbacks to journal publications is that if you’re trying to make information available to practitioners and to people who work in the field, they may not have readily available access. It creates a real barrier in terms of dissemination, especially for underserved populations. From an ethical point of view, open access articles are something that really need to be encouraged.”
Let’s take a look at a real-life example. In 2019, the Indiana Department of Child Services began the daunting task of evaluating the new Indiana Family Preservation Program. For years, we designed, collected and analyzed data. We found that the new program decreased repeat maltreatment of children in child protective services cases by 4 percent. Then we ran into a problem. We were accepted to publish in a very prestigious child welfare journal, Child Abuse and Neglect, but the cost to publish open access was nearly $4,000. This left us with a choice: publish the work so that only journal subscribers had access or raise thousands of dollars to cover the fee.
Given the long-standing national debate about family preservation, it was critical that we shared research about a program that was shown to decrease risk. On the other hand, it’s hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on publishing, when that money could instead go to programs for children and families. This is the decision that nonprofits and state agencies must make every day. When we look back at the fact that 70 percent of published work is behind a paywall, it is clear what decision most organizations make.
But cost is not the only problem associated with open access to research. According to Ryan Hanlon, president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a nonprofit that leads adoption advocacy, education, research and professional development, many other factors impact research publishing decisions.
“NCFA has previously chosen to self-publish our research findings, since most academic journals are not accessible to the public,” Hanlon said. “We want our results to be utilized by practitioners and the wider adoption community, allowing them to learn from our work and consider changes in their practices and programming.”
While self publishing is a good option in some instances, in others it creates problems with funding, grant eligibility and even the law. In 2018, federal law mandated that child welfare agencies must provide evidence for their programming through published research in peer-reviewed journal articles. Agencies lost the ability to self-publish and are now required to either find funding for open-access publishing, or agree to lock their research behind a paywall.
Data is only good if you use it and share it. That’s why, in 2023, MFF created the Open Access Publishing Grant. It allows our partners to apply for funds to publish their research and evaluations open access. We want to share the good work our partners achieve and highlight how the nonprofit sector uses and responds to data. As funders, we see it as our role to support and elevate good work.
The first MFF Open Access Publishing Grant was awarded to the Indiana Department of Child Services, to share their pivotal research on the Indiana Family Preservation Program described earlier. Sharing this new program far and wide aligns with our vision to decrease barriers to data and promotes practitioner-led research.
A call to action for funders
We encourage our fellow philanthropists to help meet this need for the research and evaluation community. Funding open access publishing requires $1,000 to $10,000. Grants of this size are often small for private and corporate foundations but can make a world of difference for researchers, nonprofits, government organizations and communities across the country.