Greed Is a Paywall Blocking Human Knowledge
One of the most widely read academic journals, Nature, just became accessible without a paid subscription. Macmillan, its publisher, announced Dec. 2 that it would be making 49 of its journals, including Nature, available to read on the PDF viewing service ReadCube. That said, readers cannot simply go to ReadCube and view any journal they want; they have to get a link to the journal from an existing subscriber in order to read it for free.
This method is a way of imitating open access without actually instating it. Although being able to link directly to scientific documents in an online article is useful for letting a reader see the exact source of what the article is reporting, relying on direct links leaves behind the academics and the researchers who want to search for specific journals and may not have a subscription. Those without a subscription will be relegated to “beggar access,” as Scientific American put it, where they can read something only if they ask subscribers to share it with them.
The issue with hiding academic articles behind paywalls is that the research featured in these kinds of journals is often paid for with government grants or through public university funding. To ask the public to pay for a subscription is thus a kind of double tax, in that would-be readers pay taxes that fund the studies that provide the basis for the journal articles and then pay again to read the finished product. The authors of the research do not receive a payment from the journals when the article is accepted or when it is published, and the money from subscribers instead goes directly to the publisher.
“The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations,” the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz wrote in 2008 in the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. He fought against the privatization of knowledge, becoming a warrior for the open access movement.
Of course, not all research is funded by the government or government-related entities, and it is the province of private foundations to actuate open access mandates. Organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are starting to guide the change. In November, the Gates Foundation announced that, starting in January 2017, it will be requiring all the research it funds be published in a format that is free for the public to read. The foundation will cover the fees the publisher charges to make sure the material is free to read and share. Considering the Gates Foundation funds almost $1 billion in scientific research every year, that is a big gesture in favor of open access, and one that will hopefully set a standard others will follow.
In short, journals like Science and other paid subscription sources of its kind should make their content available to the public for free. If they can’t do so without losing money, then they should mimic other publicly funded sources of information — perhaps even borrowing from the model used by media organizations like NPR — and ask for donations now and then. Researchers want their work to be seen by as many people as possible, and making the public pay to view it gets in the way of that goal.
Many of the works that open access supporters want to be able to use were published decades ago. The sponsoring journals may have already made back the money they initially spent publishing the studies, and papers like American biochemist Oliver Lowry’s 1951 “Protein measurement with the folin phenol reagent,” which was published by Nature, has been cited over 300,000 times. When a study has been cited that much, it should be available to the public because of its significance. There is no reason, except for the pursuit of profit, to not make this type of content freely available so research into the topic can be available to any and all readers.
The corporations that ask for a toll to cross the information gap are ultimately thwarting the growth of knowledge. Just as the idea of charging for “fast lanes” is the bane of net neutrality advocates, charging for access to research is the bane of those involved in the movement to make stored knowledge available to everyone online. A kid living in the ghetto should have just as much opportunity to educate him- or herself as a kid in Beverly Hills, and open access to information can make that possible.Wait, before you go…
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