Academic and scientific research needs to be accessible to all. The world’s most pressing problems like clean water or food security deserve to have as many people as possible solving their complexities. Yet our current academic research system has no interest in harnessing our collective intelligence. Scientific progress is currently thwarted by one thing: paywalls.
Paywalls, which restrict access to content without a paid subscription, represent a common practice used by academic publishers to block access to scientific research for those who have not paid. This keeps £19.6bn flowing from higher education and science into for-profit publisher bank accounts. My recent documentary, Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, uncovered that the largest academic publisher, Elsevier, regularly has a profit margin between 35-40%, which is greater than Google’s. With financial capacity comes power, lobbyists, and the ability to manipulate markets for strategic advantages – things that underfunded universities and libraries in poorer countries do not have.
Furthermore, university librarians are regularly required to sign non-disclosure agreements on their contract-pricing specifics with the largest for-profit publishers. Each contract is tailored specifically to that university based upon a variety of factors: history, endowment, current enrolment. This thwarts any collective discussion around price structures, and gives publishers all the power.
This is why open access to research matters – and there have been several encouraging steps in the right direction. Plan S, which requires that scientific publications funded by public grants must be published in open access journals or platforms by 2020, is gaining momentum among academics across the globe. It’s been recently backed by Italy’s Compagnia di San Paolo, which receives €150m annually to spend on research, as well as the African Academy of Science and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) of Zambia. Plan S has also been endorsed by the Chinese government.
Equally, although the US has lagged behind Europe in taking a stand on encouraging open access to research, this is changing. The University of California system has just announced that it will be ending its longstanding subscription to Elsevier. The state of California also recently passed AB 2192, a law that requires anything funded by the state to be made open access within one year of publication. In January, the US President, Donald Trump, signed into law the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, which mandates that US federal agencies publish all non-sensitive government data under an open format. This could cause a ripple effect in other countries and organisations.
But there is a role for individual academics to play in promoting open access, too. All academics need to be familiar with their options and to stop signing over copyright unnecessarily. Authors should be aware they can make a copy of their draft manuscript accessible in some form in addition to the finalised manuscript submitted to publishers. There are helpful resources, such as Authors Alliance which helps researchers manage their rights, and Sherpa/RoMEO, which navigates permissions of individual publishers and author rights. In many cases, researchers can also make their historical catalogue of articles available to the public.
Without an academic collective voice demanding open access to their research, the movement will never completely take off. It’s a case of either giving broad society access to scientific advances or allowing these breakthroughs to stay locked away for financial gain. For the majority of academics, the choice should be easy.