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In the age of the internet, information has been the most free and accessible it has ever been. Want to know about what happened in the War of 1812? How about a book summary of Brave New World? How about advice on how to break up with your long time partner? Books, articles, videos, and more are available at your fingertips; however, not everything is free on the internet. Many scientific papers have been behind a steep paywall drawn up by scientific publications and journals. The European Union has taken it upon itself to try to combat this paywall and make all new scientific papers open to all. However, could there perhaps be some unintended consequences we haven’t considered yet?
65% of the most cited scientific papers are behind a paywall (Science AF). The weighted average of the cost per article is around $30. The cost of a scientific publication subscription varies. It can go from $149 to $586 (Science Blogs). Prices can climb higher. For instance, a subscription to Applied Thermal Engineering costs $5422 per year (Elsevier). For those working in academia, the institution will often shoulder this price and allow scientists to read these articles freely through the university (if they subscribe to these journals). There has been a rising sentiment towards creating open access to academic publications. In 2016, 28.3% of publications were open access, up from 20.6% in 2009 (European Commission). Also, more than 60% of publications already allow the authors to post rough drafts of manuscripts already accepted into publication online (Nature). The rest of the publications ask for a wait time, normally a year, so that the publication can have some time first to be the only ones with that specific information.
The European Commission aims to enforce open access through grant funding. According to the Commission, any scientist receiving Horizon 2020 funding must publish their paper through an open access journal free of charge (European Commission). The idea behind this push is that it will allow for more efficient and generally better science. Supporters of this new push argue that it will allow for people not in academia to freely access scientific information (Slate). While there are avenues such as finding the author of the publication for a copy, finding the nearest open academic library, or exhausting the open access options of paid publications, supporters of open access state that these options are not nearly enough. Part of this comes from an increasing sentiment that there is a right to information and that anyone is entitled to receiving it, especially if it will do common good. After all, if a paper will do wonders to help cure something like cancer for so many people, why stuff it behind a paywall where only so many people can read it? With such a framework in mind in that one has a right to freely access information, open access supporters take offense to the 20-30% profit margins that publications make off of their articles (one source even noted that Elsevier makes up to 50% profits through their publications) (Nature). With publications making such high margins while charging an extreme amount of money per year for a subscription, it makes sense that libraries have started to turn towards free journals and the European Union making it so papers have to be accessible for more people.
Publications have pushed back over the push for open access. Paid publications, especially higher profile publications such as Nature, argue that they provide a value that open source publications cannot (Nature). Publications also claim that their high prices are due to the fact that paid and prestigious publications are much more selective. According to Nature, the peer reviewed open journal PLoS One accepts 70% of its submitted papers, while Nature only accepts 8%. This begs the question of credibility in regard to the quality of the open source documents if the threshold is so low. When you buy Nature, you are not only buying information; you’re buying credibility. There is already a crisis regarding the reproducibility of scientific experiments, giving in to a rise of junk science (Nature). With these low-threshold publications brought in at the same level as vetted publications, the credibility of scientific research may be damaged in the process. It may become increasingly more difficult to discern the truth from junk. However, science is something we rely on in law and daily life. What if we start passing laws and taking our civilizations in directions based on science that should have been more rigorous than it was?
The idea of open access to information is a fascinating debate. Many argue that the switch to an open access market for scientific papers is already gradually coming upon us (Nature). With cheaper overhead and library budgets maxed out on paid subscriptions, more open access journals are opening the market already. There are already avenues towards getting information for free: paid publications do offer some free content, and one can normally receive a copy by directly contacting the author. However, as we start taking in cheap, open access publications, are we perhaps losing the rigor that comes from paid publications? Publishers such as the AAAS or Elsevier, while they ask for heavy prices, require a certain amount of quality and rigor that is on a different level than many open access publications. While it is perhaps true that we may be heading towards a rather murky place in regard to the rise of open access, part of the fault lies with the publications. With a rather steep paywall that maxes out library budgets, it makes perfect sense for libraries to seek out cheaper equivalents. Paid publications will have to make a change, even if it does mean less profits, if they want to stay afloat in this age of free information and open access. Prestigious journals like Nature and Science do have a place in this world, but they have to do some real soul searching to find it. No pressure, but the fate of science and truth may lie in the balance.