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Scientific Research Shouldn’t Sit behind a Paywall

The public pays taxes to support research; they should be able to access the results

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Long before I began experimenting with baker’s yeast, which led to the discovery of how cells transport and secrete proteins, I was just a kid who loved science. Growing up, I would pore over issues of Science in my high school library, exploring the latest ideas. Today’s students don’t have access to this same information for one reason: the subscription model of most for-profit journal publishers.

Most of the scientific research conducted in the U.S. and abroad is supported by federal government funds — that is to say, by taxpayer dollars. Yet much of the information that results from such funding is not publicly available outside of research institutions that can afford expensive scientific journal subscriptions.

Instead, students, doctors, researchers and the public often have to pay a fee of some $40 per article to read the latest scientific research. As a result, physicians, for instance, may not be able to read a paper with direct relevance to their clinical practice.

This is just not right.

Luckily, there’s a solution: open access. Open access is the idea that scientific literature, which was paid for largely by public funds, including author fees, should be available for all.

Having paid taxes to support the work, citizens should reap the benefit of that investment. Those benefits include the accelerated advancement of science that occurs when scientists can more easily build upon one another’s work. And it includes the opportunity for the public to read the research for themselves. The University of California supports open accessfor these reasons.

Unfortunately, commercial publishers have been slow to adopt the open access model for fear that it might reduce their sizable profit margins. The world’s largest scientific publisher, Elsevier, for example, enjoys a profit margin of about 40 percent for its publishing division — larger than that of nearly every other publicly traded corporation in the world.

How do they do it? The publisher’s business model relies on the free labor of research scholars who write and review articles as part of their academic responsibilities. Meanwhile, the very institutions who employ these scholars — and the public — must pay costly fees to access this work. 

All journals face their share of publishing expenses. But some journals find ways to publish without the very large profit margin that Elsevier enjoys.

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For example, I am a previous editor of an important journal published by the National Academy of Sciences. That journal has a mandate to break even — and it has achieved that mandate for over 100 years, doing all the things that journals need to do. Yet it charges the University of California $25,000 a year, compared with the $11 million a year charged by Elsevier.

While Elsevier is licensing a bundle of journals rather than a single journal, there is a way to make a fair comparison based on the cost to download a single article. The difference is striking: Every download of a National Academy of Sciences article costs the University of California 4 cents, whereas every download from an Elsevier journal costs $1.06. That’s the profit margin that I and many others have come to see as excessive.

For-profit publishers respond only to market pressure, and it will take more universities taking a stand against the current business model—as the University of California did recently by cutting ties with Elsevier—to get there.

There is power in numbers. And we are not alone. The open access movement is reverberating across this country and around the world.

Randy Schekman is a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of California, Berkeley, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.