jenwaller@flickr

jenwaller@flickr

Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and found that Wikipedia has started charging an access fee. It would cause a meme-filled outpouring of indignation, provoking an immediate case of indigestion for any student trying to complete an essay, and probably ending in an attack by Anonymous. Underlying all the outrage would be one true and damning argument: most of Wikipedia’s content is generated by people that will not be paid for the published fruits of their labors. If Wikipedia claimed its role as a publisher allowed it to limit and profit from access to its crowd-sourced content, we would all cry foul.

So why do we allow the same travesty to continue in academic publishing? Research articles presenting new scientific findings are a far cry from crowd-sourced articles analyzing Snakes on a Plane. But information published in journals like Science and Nature is gathered by scientists who pay a fee to publish in these journals. These journals then send out manuscripts to be peer-reviewed – for free – by other scientists in the same field. These journals then charge for access to this information. It’s a brilliantly executed con sustained by the stranglehold these journals have on the ultimate currency in academia: prestige.

Outrage at this bullying might be limited to the scientists acting as workhorses for these journals, except that American tax dollars pay for 60% of basic academic research. Only 10% of academic articles are published in open access journals, which are freely available online. To access the remaining 90%, universities pay millions of dollars in subscription fees buying back information that is collected, reviewed, and edited by their own researchers. Taxpayers outside of universities that want to research their diagnosis of a rare disease, or investigate a new discovery in more depth, face a fee of $40 or more per article. Aaron Swartz, the much-lauded and mourned internet activist, called this limited access “private theft of public culture.”

This current model of academic publishing is robbing us of much more than direct access to information that we’ve paid for. Paywalls, while helping publishers profit, cause untold damage to research progress and innovation. Even among scholars at universities shelling out subscription fees, lack of access is still a serious problem. For example, a 2006 survey of microbiologists and immunologists revealed that over one-third still have difficulty accessing of all the articles they need. Even biotechnology companies, which are a critical link in translating basic research into useful medical and technological applications, are allowed only limited access to cutting-edge research by small subscription budgets.

If you don’t believe me, believe 52 Nobel laureates. In a letter supporting the Federal Research Public Access Act, they stated:  “Broad dissemination of research results is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge. For America to obtain an optimal return on our investment in science, publicly funded research must be shared as broadly as possible.” The legislation ultimately faltered, but a new bill is shows more promise of success.

The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) is making its way through the U.S. Senate. This legislation would mandate that all federal agencies with annual research and development budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with free online access to the results of that research within 6 months of publication. The six main agencies affected by this legislation dole out 97% of federal research funds, effectively making FASTR’s an open-access gateway to all federally-funded research. The NIH has already successfully implemented this model with the central database PubMed, where anyone can access scientific and medical research within a year of its publication.

FASTR is a necessary first step in removing boundaries that block the exchange of ideas or stifle collaboration in scientific research. Previous versions of this bill have been defeated early in the legislative process. But a growing tide of resentment towards privileged information in research, coupled with the realization of the Internet’s potential in collaborative work, have given FASTR a better chance than previous attempts. Bring on the memes, bring on the outrage, and bring on the end of a system that treats basic truths as privileged commodities.

Sarah Douglas is PhD candidate at Harvard University in molecular biology.  

ACT: If interested in spending 3 minutes to contact your local Senator about FASTR, get quick instructions here.