Scientific research shouldn’t sit behind a paywall


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Long before I began experimenting with baker’s yeast, which led to the discovery of how cells transport and secrete proteins, I was just a kid who loved science. Growing up, I would pore over issues of Science in my high school library, exploring the latest ideas. Today’s students don’t have access to this same information for one reason: the subscription model of most for-profit journal publishers.

Most of the scientific research conducted in the U.S. and abroad is supported by federal government funds — that is to say, by taxpayer dollars. Yet much of the information that results from such funding is not publicly available outside of research institutions that can afford expensive scientific journal subscriptions.

Instead, students, doctors, researchers and the public often have to pay a fee of some $40 per article to read the latest scientific research. As a result, physicians, for instance, may not be able to read a paper with direct relevance to their clinical practice.

This is just not right.

Luckily, there’s a solution: open access. Open access is the idea that scientific literature, which was paid for largely by public funds, including author fees, should be available for all.

Having paid taxes to support the work, citizens should reap the benefit of that investment. Those benefits include the accelerated advancement of science that occurs when scientists can more easily build upon one another’s work. And it includes the opportunity for the public to read the research for themselves. The University of California supports open access for these reasons.

Unfortunately, commercial publishers have been slow to adopt the open access model for fear that it might reduce their sizable profit margins. The world’s largest scientific publisher, Elsevier, for example, enjoys a profit margin of about 40 percent for its publishing division — larger than that of nearly every other publicly traded corporation in the world.

How do they do it? The publisher’s business model relies on the free labor of research scholars who write and review articles as part of their academic responsibilities. Meanwhile, the very institutions who employ these scholars — and the public — must pay costly fees to access this work. 

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