Open Access in medicine and other life sciences

In what follows, we present some information that we have compiled on open access (OA) in the life sciences. In the life science disciplines, OA is fostered in particular by the mandates of research funders such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust. Especially in medicine, and in the health sciences in general, there are continual calls for free access to scientific research results - particularly when they are publicly funded - on the grounds that they contribute to medical progress.

Moreover, in the recent past, numerous OA journals (or entire publishing houses) have been founded in the life sciences, thereby offering scientists in this field greater possibilities of publishing in OA. The so-called mega-journals, such as PLOS ONE give particular consideration to the life sciences, while some journals or platforms such as PeerJ, BMJ Open, F1000Research and Cell Reports focus entirely on this field. The founding of the online journal eLife, which is edited by the Nobel prize winner Randy Shekman, also aroused great interest.

Open Access journals

As of June 2018, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) listed more than 280 OA journals in Biology and more than 670 in Medicine. The following is a selection of publishers who offer purely OA journals:

These journals are quality assured through peer-review, and some of them also have a journal impact factor (JIF) - a metric that is also used in the life sciences to assess the quality of publications . As the newly-founded journals are relatively young, they cannot yet have a JIF because a timeframe of three years is needed to calculate it.

In contrast to subscription-based journals, the free accessibility of OA journals ensures greater visibility, which, as studies have repeatedly shown, leads to greater citation frequency. Moreover, OA also ensures that emerging and developing countries can share in current medical knowledge.

Journals can also be searched for in PubMed Central's journal list. Further information can be found in multidisciplinary databases such as the Web of Science (WoS)  or the Electronic Journals Library (EZB),  which allow users to restrict their search to a particular discipline and which explicitly identify OA journals.

Disciplinary repositories

As a disciplinary repository, Publisso, the Open Access publication portal for the life sciences provided by ZB MED - Leibniz Information Centre for Life Sciences is of crucial importance.

Literature searches in medicine and other life sciences

In addition to multidisciplinary databases such as the Web of Science and Scopus (both of which are subscription-based), discipline-specific and freely accessible content can also be searched for via PubMed Central, which currently lists over three million articles in biomedicine and the life sciences. Relevant content can also be searched for by using the browsing function of the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine BASE, the search can be restricted to OA documents. The OAIster database can also be used to search for freely accessible publications. The Virtual Library of Biology vifabio enables users to quickly access approximately 600 biological online databases, some of which also contain literature from the life sciences. Whether the publications are freely accessible must be determined on an individual basis.

Key players

National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Library of Medicine (NLM)

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) play an active role in promoting OA - on the one hand by operating repositories and databases, and on the other hand by issuing recommendations and grant award conditions that encourage or require the authors in their subject areas to provide OA to works that arise from the funding they provide. Since 2008, researchers funded by the NIH are required to deposit their final accepted peer-reviewed manuscripts (postprints) in the NIH repository PubMed Central, where they must be made publicly available no later than 12 months after publication.

World Health Organisation (WHO)

Since July 2014, publications (journal articles or book chapters) authored or co-authored by WHO staff, or generated by projects that are funded in whole or in part by the WHO, must be published in an OA journal (or a hybrid OA journal) or in a subscription-based journal that allows the accepted author manuscript (postprint) to be deposited in PubMed Central within 12 months of publication. In the case of OA publications, a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence 3.0, or, for book chapters, a CC BY-ND 3.0 licence, should be used.

Public Library of Science (PLOS)

The Public Library of Science (PLOS) is a not-for-profit OA publisher that was co-founded in 2001 by the Nobel prize winner and former director of the National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus with the aim of publishing high-quality OA journals comparable to Science and Nature. The first journal - PLoS Biology -was founded in October 2003; PLoS Medicine followed in 2004. The PLoS journals are financed in part by publication fees. The start-up costs for PLoS were financed by foundation grants in the amount of 9 million US dollars.

Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust explicitly endorses OA and has also anchored it in its grant award conditions. Publications generated by projects that are funded in whole or in part by the Wellcome Trust must be deposited in PubMed Central or in PubMed Central Europe. The trust also provides funding to cover publication fees (article processing charges, APCs). When APCs are borne by the trust, authors are expressly required to publish their research results under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence.

BioMed Central

BioMed Central is an OA journal that was founded in the UK in 2000. As of November 2014, its portfolio comprised 250 peer-reviewed journals. As in the case of the PLoS journals, BioMed Central's journals are financed by article processing charges (APCs). Institutional memberships are an additional source of finance. The amount of the membership fee depends on the type of membership chosen, the size of the institution, and/or the number of articles published by its authors. APCs are then either waived or a discount is given.

German Medical Science

German Medical Science (GMS) is a portal for the publication of medical journals, congress proceedings, and research reports. It was founded in 2003 as a collaborative project on the part of the Association of the Scientific Medical Societies in Germany (AWMF), ZB MED - Leibniz Information Centre for Life Sciences, and the German Institute of Medical Documentation and Information (DIMDI). At present (as of November 2014), the GMS portal publishes 15 journals on an ongoing basis. In addition, research reports (abstracts and full texts) and congress proceedings are published. The journals are edited by the respective medical societies, who are responsible for peer-review, and who also pay the publication fees. ZB MED is responsible for organisational and editorial support; the technical infrastructure for backing up the data is made available by DIMDI.

Swiss Medical Publishers

Swiss Medical Publishers (EMH) advocates OA and publishes the Swiss Medical Weekly (founded in February 2010) and a number of other OA journals.

Open Science

Open Data

Examples of projects in genome research, which is an important area for the life sciences, are:

  • The Human Genome Project (HGP): Established in the USA in October 1990, the HGP was conducted by a publicly funded international research consortium. Initially over 1,000 scientists in 40 countries participated in the project. The goal was to sequence and map the human genome. Although originally scheduled to last 15 years, the HGP achieved its goal in 2003.
  • GenBank: The GenBank is a National Institutes of Health (NIH) database that contains all openly accessible DNA sequences.


Content editor of this web page: Dr Jasmin Schmitz and Ursula Arning, ZB MED - Leibniz Information Centre for Life Sciences.