It was in November 2014 when I first wrote about Diego Gomez. Tomorrow will see a court, in Colombia, decide his fate. (Article in French) He is facing a fine of up to $327 000 and four to eight years in prison for the sharing a scientific article with a colleague. This is something that many scientists do and which is sometimes necessary for our work. This case highlights the need to move to a world where all scientific articles are open access, i.e. free to read.
In the current system, scientific articles are published through journals and you often need to pay to read them. The payments are used to pay for the journal’s hosting and editing costs. However, this system has lead to some real problems for science. Journals often charge exorbitant amounts with profit margins up to 40% for some publishers. This is especially outrageous when much research is paid for with public funds, so people are paying for the research, paying again to see the results of that research and sometimes even paying to publish that research! Peer-reviewed by other scientists is done for free so does not cost the journals anything and in open access systems researchers pay once to publish the article and then it is freely available to everyone.
This system obviously affects researchers in poorer institutions and countries, like Colombia, the most; leading to inequality in science which can be greater than the economic inequality between countries. This is also exacerbated by the current problems of research funding being increasingly allocated a smaller group of richer beneficiaries. Most worryingly, this results in research being locked away where it cannot be easily accessed by researchers who need it to properly inform their own research.
It is true that many journals have reduced fees for researchers in poorer countries or, sometimes no fees at all, but this doesn’t fully promote access to research. I have been in the top research university in Africa, University of Cape Town, and there were many journals that we did not have access to. That means that worse-funded universities would have had even less access to research. Even in Austria, at a research institute with much greater funding, there are journals that we do not have access to and need to specifically buy individual articles if we think they might be relevant. That is not a viable option everywhere.
There was at least one time during my masters where I emailed the authors of a paper and asked for a pdf copy because I was not able to access their journal through the university. This kind of sharing of research exists in a legal grey area. Most researchers are happy to share copies of articles with colleagues or whoever asks for them but this is not always legal. Diego Gomez found out the hard way. As a student in Columbia, he had the problem of not having access to all the research that he needed. At one point, he found an article that was very useful in his field and shared it online to help his colleagues. For that act, he faces fines and jail time for something which should not be a crime. For science to function properly, researchers need to have access to published research.
There is a movement towards open access which is picking up momentum. The European Union will require all publicly funded research to be published in open access journals by 2020. In addition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also stated that research which is funded by them must be published in Open Access journals, a good move that will hopefully force many more journals to move to open access models.
This isn’t only an issue that affects scientists though. The free flow of information is necessary for everyone to be able to make informed decisions. This is why the Harper government’s gagging of climate scientists was a travesty and why the similar behaviour of Trumps administration to federal agencies and non-profits is tragic. We are in this world together. Hiding knowledge, useful knowledge, is not helpful to anyone. If you have patents that can make things better and more efficient then you should share that work. It’s something fellow South African, Elon Musk realised when he made Tesla’s patterns for electric cars freely available. There are bigger issues at stake than our own individual interests and unless we can work together we will all suffer the consequences.
It will be harder to convince for-profit companies to change their ways but we can start with research. We can make sure that there doesn’t need to be another Diego Gomez or, worse, another Aaron Swartz. It won’t happen overnight but it needs to happen. Hiding science away behind paywalls does not benefit anyone other than the publishers. It does not benefit the science, it does not benefit the researchers and it certainly does not benefit the people that research is meant to help. It should not be possible for a researcher to justify his work by claiming how it will help society and then publish it behind paywalls that prevent the very people that would benefit from that research from being able to access it.