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Taxpayers spend $140 billion funding science each year — but can't access many of the results

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The British commentator George Monbiot once compared academic publishers to the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, concluding that the former were more predatory.

"The knowledge monopoly is as unwarranted and anachronistic as the corn laws," he wrote. "Let's throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research that belongs to us."

Despite a decades-old "open access" movement — to have all research findings in the public domain and not languishing behind paywalls — the traditional approach to publishing remains firmly in place. Taxpayers fund a lot of the science that gets done, academics (many of whom are also funded by public money) peer review it for free, and then journals charge users (again, many of whom paid for the science in the first place!) ludicrous sums of money to view the finished product.

American universities and government groups spend $10-billion each year to access the science. That's ten billion dollars to buy back content we have often already paid for in the first place. We may shell out for Murdoch's news services, too, but the fees are more affordable, Murdoch's empire isn't funded by tax dollars, and Murdoch pays his staff to create their original products. As Monbiot said, journals make Murdoch look like a socialist.

Even more amazing: despite this outrageous set-up and all the attention to it over the last 20 years, the status quo is still firmly entrenched, especially when it comes to health research. All of us — physicians, policymakers, journalists, curious patients — can't access many of the latest research findings, unless we fork over a hefty sum or it happens to be published in an open access journal.

The history of the "open access" movement

To understand how we got to this absurd (but also admittedly genius) business model you need to understand some of the history of academic publishing.

One of the best summaries I came across was from Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the Public Library of Science, one of the world's preeminent open-access publishing projects. He wrote:

Most people date the birth of the modern scientific journal to the middle of the 17th century, when the Royal Society in England took advantage of the growing printing industry to begin publishing proceedings of their meetings for the benefit of members unable to attend, as well as for posterity.

But scholarly journals as we know them were really a product of the 19th century, when growing activity and public interest in science led to the creation of most of the big titles we know about today: Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet published their first editions in the 1800’s.

They had noble missions. For example, the preface to the first edition of Science in July 1880 stated that its goal was to "afford scientific workers in the United States the opportunity of promptly recording the fruits of their researches, and facilities for communication between one another and the world".

Journals were enabled by the printing press and mail services, Eisen writes, and like all pre-Internet publishing models, they sold subscriptions and reprints of articles to stay afloat and recover their costs.

But then along came the Internet.

"Rather than adopting their business model to the new medium, they stuck with the same subscription-based system that they used for their print journals. And why not — so long as scientists were still giving them papers, and universities were buying them back, it was a great business. An even better one given that they no longer had to pay for printing and shipping."

Around this time, academics, including Eisen, started to push for a different kind of model. This is now called "open access" and it involves paying publishers for the work they do — distributing the work, facilitating peer review, copy-editing articles, etc. — but then putting the finished science in the public domain so that anyone can access it.

The movement has seen some gains: the establishment of open-access journals, universities and scientific-funding agencies enacting policies that require the science they fund to be freely available. Most recently, late last year the Gates Foundation announced that, starting in January 2017, all of the research it pays for needs to be published in open access journals.

But as you can see in the chart below, some disciplines have had more success liberating the literature than others, and progress has been slow and halting, particularly in medical research.

Open Access 2010

(Policy Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Open Access, UNESCO)

Why the traditional scientific publishing model persists

This is truly a systemic problem in science. Entrenched incentive systems rely on something called the "impact factor" of journals. Impact factor is a measure of citations that journals get; the more citations, the more impact. Scientists strive to publish in high-impact journals to prove their worth, and the prestige of universities and research labs rests on the number of publications in these journals that researchers can rack up.

Right now, most of the very high-impact journals (ie., Science, Nature, Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine) are not open access.

"The currency of academic careers is journals, papers," Eisen told me. "As an author, you don't give a shit about the business model of the journal. The exchange you make with the journal is: 'I'm going to give you this paper, as long as you give me back what I want, which is a citation in your journal.'" So the cycle continues.

The power to change lays with the federal government

Clearly, in the current environment, scientists aren't empowered to change the system. There are a brave few (including Eisen) who have personal policies of only publishing in open-access journals. But these are lonely actors working in a twisted system.

The power to change lays with the government.

If the US federal government made publishing in an open-access journal a condition of getting a grant, said Eisen, the flood gates of science would open. The government controls the biggest pot of money for science funding, after all, and if they enacted a rule that research they paid for had to be immediately available to the public, scientists would need to turn to open-access journals and traditional journals would need to change their predatory ways.

In 2013, the Obama administration took a big step: they announced that all the research they funded had to be made available to the public — but only a year after publication. (They had already done this for all biomedical research they funded.)

The one-year embargo, while a step in the right direction, continues to protect journals that aren't open-access. Scientists still flock to high-impact gated journals first, and journals can still make money off subscriptions and reprints of the articles they run and delay open access to the latest science that the public subsidized.

"This is an almost naked admission that [the government] is trying to preserve this $10 billion a year industry," said Eisen. "The tragedy is that it's not a new observation. It's as true today as it was 20 years ago."