Open Access Day – an historical perspective from the UK
As everyone is celebrating the first Open Access Day,
At this time, the country was rebuilding many hospitals that had been destroyed and it seemed an unlikely time to introduce such a revolutionary concept. The medical profession and its senior organisation, the British Medical Association, were appalled and saw the NHS as heralding the end of their cherished profession, the end of their prized status and indeed their livelihood. There were petitions, marches, heated debates and it seemed the battle was lost. But Bevan stuck firm to his vision and initiated a vigorous publicity campaign targeted at the general public. As the strength of the positive response from the population became clear, a few doctors wavered and agreed to join the NHS. It then became clear to the profession that if some of their community agreed, they would attract very high numbers of patients, leaving the deniers struggling for people to add to their list. They might be faced with empty waiting rooms and no income. At this moment in the campaign Bevan proposed that if doctors agreed to serve with the NHS, they could retain a part of their private practice. A deal was struck and the NHS came into existence, on time, over budget and under-prepared. Sick people – really sick people - flocked to their doctors, threatening to overwhelm the service, but demonstrating indisputably the great volume of untreated health problems within the population.
As we watched recent TV programmes on the battle for the NHS, it has been tempting to draw parallels with the drive towards OA. The publishers fear the advent of free global access to publicly funded research findings. They too fear their livelihoods will be damaged. As in 1948, there are misunderstandings, misinformation, technical uncertainties. But both the NHS and OA came into being to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities. When the NHS opened its doors, there was astonishment at the long queues of citizens waiting for free treatment. Similarly, as research articles have become available free to all, usage has rocketed and full text download statistics have amazed OA repository managers and OA publishers, demonstrating without doubt the information deprivation faced by much of the global scientific community.
And now, 60 years on, the NHS flourishes. People grumble of course, there have been little injections of commercialisation, and the service has elements in need of improvement, - but in truth the British treasure the NHS to such an extent that it has been proposed that its birthday be marked as a national holiday, “as a symbol of the countries’ commitment to fairness”. The doctors have adapted (and are still earning enviable salaries), the patients are beginning to forget how it used to be and make increasing demands, the health of the nation has improved beyond recognition. The courageous ‘Nye’ Bevan was vilified by the establishment, but today some of those that witnessed this social revolution have placed him on a pedestal, for ever grateful for his vision. And six years on from
Sixty years hence, on OA Day 2068, the international research community will look back on the old days and wonder how research was ever conducted without the access now becoming available - and if the history of the NHS is a model, there will be no turning back the clock.
On 5 July we start together, the new National Health Service. It has not had an altogether trouble-free gestation. There have been understandable anxieties, inevitable in so great and novel an undertaking…... My job is to give you all the facilities, resources and help I can, and then to leave you alone as professional men and women to use your skills and judgement without hindrance. Let us try to develop that partnership from now on.'
- Aneurin Bevan, The Lancet, 1948
Posted by Barbara Kirsop, Trustee and Secretary EPT.