Why making university research free is complicated
Currently, the majority of published scientific discoveries – and the vast majority of high-profile new research – are hidden behind paywalls. Most best scientific publications charge readers high access fees, with prices that are rising faster than inflation. Annual membership with Nature costs $199, Science from $79 per yearand The Lancet bill $227. And these are just a few of hundreds of journals where new searches appear.
This money goes to publishers, not to academics who write scientific papers. And while some top-tier journals offer researchers the option of making their submission free to read, they do so by reversing their fee structure, placing the burden on the author instead.
Nature, for example, accuses authors not affiliated with institutions around $9,500 to display a log without the paywall. Given that grant-funded research is already far from profitable for the researchers themselves, this is a significant barrier that disproportionately hits young academics and those in low-income countries.
But in a bid to tear down the paywall and make science more accessible to everyone, the White House announced last month new guidelines requiring that all taxpayer-funded research, including data used for a study, be made public free of charge by the end of 2025.
The Biden plan is one of the biggest wins yet for the “open sciencemovement. In practice, this often means publishing the papers that describe new scientific findings immediately and without paywalls. This can also include publicly sharing complete datasets and the code used for analysis.
The movement towards transparency and open access science began with 1990s activismand reached the White House in 2013 under the Obama administration, having been a force in American politics from 2007. Biden’s interest in open science predates his presidency; in 2016, he noticed that “taxpayers fund $5 billion a year in cancer research every year, but once it’s published, almost all of that taxpayer-funded research is behind walls.”
There is a simple argument behind making publicly funded research available: taxpayers are already paying to fund a study, so why should they also pay a fee to a journal to see the results? The hope is that making the latest data and research findings freely available will allow scientists and entrepreneurs to take advantage of new findings more quickly, and that members of the public will have a clearer picture of the state of scientific knowledge. .
But despite decades of advocacy for “open science,” the idea is far from universally accepted — and there isn’t even a consistent definition of what it means.
The push for open science — and the pushback — didn’t start with the United States, and past international efforts can provide some insight into how the new guidelines are likely to pan out.
In 2018, Robert-Jan Smitswho was then Senior Advisor for Open Access and Innovation at the European Center for Political Strategyfounded a movement to open access to science, Take (the) advantage growing support in Europe. He recruited a number of influential funders to require grant recipients to make their research public, even if it was a radical departure previous European standards based on paywalls for academic publication.
In their recently published, free-to-download book, Plan S for Shock, Smits and his co-author Rachael Pells say the science will be most successful as a collaborative international effort, but currently scientists in poorer countries are exclude by high access fees. For society to take full advantage of new discoveries, the results must be accessible to everyone, not just academics.
While open access articles show a small, but inconsistent quotes increase other scientists, compared to paid research, this massively underestimates the true impact: a Dutch survey by Springer Nature found that 40% of visitors to their open-access site were non-academics and simply had a personal or professional interest in a topic.
Below Planswho went in force in 2021 in 12 European countries, scientists receiving a grant from an affiliated funder would, as a condition of this funding, make their discoveries free access. They might post on a free public repositoryAs Zenodo and arXivWhere pay a fee to a conventional journal. Universities often negotiated deals directly with publishers to cover these costs, while some donors presented their own programs to cover the cost of submitting research they have funded.
Biden’s new plan will have similar requirements, but applied to the large number of researchers and universities that receive US federal government funding, which nearly covers 400 different organizations and agencies. The the transition is about to be completed by the end of 2025.
Unleashing research funded largely by taxpayers’ money may seem like a no-brainer, but over time the potential drawbacks open science efforts like the Plan S mandate have become more apparent. While paid publishing but free reading platforms bring more research to the public, they can add barriers for researchers and aggravate some existing inequalities in academia. Scientific publishing will remain a for-profit industry and one very lucrative one for editors. Transferring fees to authors does not change that.
Lots of new open access journals remove fees completely, but even if they’re not trying to make a profit, they still have to cover their operating costs. They fall back on advertising revenueindividual donations or philanthropic subsidies, corporate sponsorshipand even crowdfunding.
But open access platforms often lack the prestige of top well-known journals like Nature. Early-career scientists, as well as those in less wealthy universities in low income countries — often rely on precarious, short term grant funds to carry out their research. Their career depends on the output of an impressive release folderWhich one is already an uphill battle.
Established journals are reluctant to commit to open access because submission fees may deter potential researchers from sending in their work. And if journals don’t charge submission fees or reader subscriptions, they will have to look to other sources of revenue, which may be unsustainable in the long run.
There are other ways the open science movement falls short of the optimistic claims of its proponents. So far, the movement has focused on state-funded science; Corporate R&D and privately funded research are exempt from the mandate. While supporting business Innovation and Entrepreneurship is one of the explicit goals of the Biden administration, some groups fear that the “marketing” of science will actually reduce transparency, and that financial conflicts of interest in commercially funded research will lead to biased studies.
The influence of the open science movement is growing thanks to projects like Plan S, but it’s hard to gauge exactly how far it’s going now. Their coalition of funders supported 200,000 new studies in 2020, or 12% of items in the most cited journals.
White House directives go massively increase adoption – the U.S. government funded 195,000 to 263,000 studies in 2020 – but probably won’t be enough to move the world of scholarly publishing into a new, more accessible paradigm. If science is really meant to serve the public interest, it should be in the public interest to make it available.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!