Open Access to Scientific Research Can Save Lives

December 03, 2012

This year a high-school student in Maryland announced that he had invented a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. The test costs three cents per use. It works 168 times as fast and more than 400 times as accurately as the best previously existing test. It also may be able to detect ovarian and lung cancers.

Jack Andraka, the inventor, is 15 years old. His cancer test is more than a medical triumph. It is also a triumph for open access, the goal of a decade-old movement to replace an obsolete and inefficient scholarly publication industry with something better for everybody: a system that allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection free access to results of academic and scientific research—most of it paid for by taxpayers.

Without open access, Jack Andraka would not have been able to retrieve and read scientific publications on the Web, even if he had been able to locate them. He did not have thousands of dollars to spend on scholarly journal subscriptions or pay-per-view fees.

Under the old system, almost all scientific and scholarly articles were printed in journals whose owners have charged exorbitant prices despite the fact that they paid nothing to the authors or their institutions and contributed nothing to the research itself. (In 2010 the largest publisher of scholarly journals, Elsevier, reported a profit margin of 36 percent.) The articles were available almost nowhere outside the libraries of universities in rich countries.

The movement for open access has overcome efforts by publishers to protect their cash machine. Today huge amounts of scholarly research, including more than 8,000 peer-reviewed open-access journals, are available to everyone with the flick of a cursor. Open access is a component of international debates about scholarly communications. It is taught in colleges. It is debated by parliaments. And more than 300 research funders and institutions, including the world's largest source of funds for research, the National Institutes of Health, now require authors to make their peer-reviewed manuscripts open access.

The economic benefits of open access are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The decision to place the results of the Human Genome Project in the public domain without delay, for example, helped ensure that scientists everywhere can use the data. The $3.8-billion investment in the project has had an estimated economic impact of $796-billion.

But significant work needs to be done in the next 10 years to allow open access to benefit many more scholars and scientists, more people with cancer who want to understand the science on the diseases afflicting them, more doctors struggling to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

Simply put, open access should become the default method in every country for distributing new peer-reviewed research in every field. In order to make that happen, universities and funding agencies must develop effective open-access policies.

Every institution of higher learning should ensure that peer-reviewed versions of all future scholarly articles by its faculty members are made open-access through a designated repository that captures the institution's intellectual output.

All public and private agencies that support scientific research should have policies assuring that peer-reviewed versions of all scholarly articles arising from research they have paid for be made accessible through a suitable archive.

When a given publisher will not allow access on an agency's terms, the funder should require grantees to look for another publisher. Funders should treat publication costs as research costs and should help grantees pay reasonable publication fees at fee-based open-access journals.

Research institutions, including funders, should support the development and maintenance of the tools, directories, and resources essential to the progress and sustainability of open access.

The emerging system of open access removes not only impediments to research, but also impediments to the uses of research for creating medicines, technologies, and informed public policies. Open access serves all of the beneficiaries of research—from college professors to Jack Andraka to everyone else on this planet.

Peter Suber is director of the Harvard Open Access Project. Darius Cuplinskas is director of the Information Program at the Open Society Foundations.