Open Access To Scientific Research Can Save Lives

Peter Suber and Darius Cuplinskas | The Chronicle | December 3, 2012

This year a high-school student in Maryland announced that he had invented a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. The test costs three cents per use. It works 168 times as fast and more than 400 times as accurately as the best previously existing test. It also may be able to detect ovarian and lung cancers. Jack Andraka, the inventor, is 15 years old. His cancer test is more than a medical triumph. It is also a triumph for open access, the goal of a decade-old movement to replace an obsolete and inefficient scholarly publication industry with something better for everybody: a system that allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection free access to results of academic and scientific research—most of it paid for by taxpayers.

Without open access, Jack Andraka would not have been able to retrieve and read scientific publications on the Web, even if he had been able to locate them. He did not have thousands of dollars to spend on scholarly journal subscriptions or pay-per-view fees. Under the old system, almost all scientific and scholarly articles were printed in journals whose owners have charged exorbitant prices despite the fact that they paid nothing to the authors or their institutions and contributed nothing to the research itself. (In 2010 the largest publisher of scholarly journals, Elsevier, reported a profit margin of 36 percent.) The articles were available almost nowhere outside the libraries of universities in rich countries...