The impact of open access scientific knowledge


As anyone who conducts research knows, accessing academic journal articles online can be difficult. Researchers have to navigate a maze of paywalls and login credentials to read PDFs of journal articles. Many publishers rely on a subscription model, which is prohibitively expensive for everyone except for well-funded academic and government research institutions. Any person wanting to read primary research is mostly out of luck, even if their tax dollars sponsored the research. Cutting the public out of the publishing loop leads to academics writing papers that can only be accessed and understood by other academics. This outcome is bad for academics, because it limits the impact of their research, and for the public, who receives only a limited understanding of new research. Finding ways to increase the diffusion of scientific knowledge will narrow the gap in understanding between scientists and the public.

The more things change

In spite of technological advancements like the Internet, academic publishing has operated in much the same way for centuries. Scientists voluntarily review their peers’ papers for little or no compensation; the paper’s author likewise does not receive payment from academic publishers. Though most of the costs of publishing a journal are administrative, the cost of subscribing to scientific journals nevertheless increased 600 percent between 1984 and 2002. The funding for the research libraries that form the bulk of journal subscribers has not kept pace, leading to campaigns at universities including Harvard to boycott for-profit publishers.

Though the Internet has not yet brought down the price of academic journal subscriptions, it has led to some interesting alternatives. In 2015, the Twitter hashtag #icanhazPDF was created to request copies of papers located behind paywalls. Anyone with access to a specific paper can download it and then e-mail it to the requester. The practice violates the copyright of publishers, but puts papers in reach of researchers who would otherwise not be able to read them. If a researcher cannot read a journal article in the first place, they cannot go on to cite it, which raises the profile of the cited article and the journal that published it. The publisher is caught between two conflicting goals: to increase the number of citations for their articles and earning revenue to stay in business.

Thinking outside the journal

A trio of University of Chicago researchers examines this issue through the lens of Wikipedia in a paper titled “Amplifying the Impact of Open Access: Wikipedia and the Diffusion of Science.” Wikipedia makes a compelling subject for scientific diffusion given its status as one of the most visited websites in the world, attracting 374 million unique visitors monthly as of September 2015. The study found that on English language articles, Wikipedia editors are 47 percent more likely to cite an article from an open access journal. Anyone using Wikipedia as a first source for information on a subject is more likely to read information from open source journals. If readers click through the links to cited articles, they can read the actual text of these open-source journal articles.

Given how much the federal government spends on scientific research ($66 billion on nondefense R&D in 2015), it has a large role to play in the diffusion of scientific knowledge. Since 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has required researchers who publish in academic journals to also publish in PubMed, an online open access journal. Expanding provisions like the NIH Public Access Policy to other agencies and to recipients of federal grants at universities would give the public and other researchers a wealth of scientific information. Scientific literacy, even on cutting-edge research, is increasingly important when science informs policy on major issues such as climate change and health care.