The US Federal government spent $32.6 billion on academic research in 2009, 59% of all research done in the US. The European Union spent about €50.5 billion on research between 2007 and 2014, and will increase that to €80 billion between 2014 to 2020. Research is described as central to economic development and as an investment in the future. So how can policymakers maximize the impact of their investments?
One way is to mandate open access to peer-reviewed articles developed from government-funded research. Open access requirements at benefit researchers and institutions, patients and citizens, and public and private institutions. As a recent report by the Committee for Economic Development found, "The benefits of increased access are so great than any delay in availability of research should be minimized."
Different models for open access exist, such as licensing journal and articles under an open copyright license (e.g., a Creative Commons license). The Creative Commons Attribution license in particular grants anyone the right to reuse, remix, and redistribute content as long as they attribute the owner. Public Library of Science (PLoS), consisting of a growing body of open access journals, is a stellar example of open access.
The benefits of open access to scholarly publications are starting to be recognized in the US, EU, and in institutions around the world. The UK Government recently tapped Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia founder) to increase access to research. Europe's Horizon 2020 program, dedicating €80 billion to research over 6 years, will reportedly adopt open access requirements. NIH and Harvard University policies demonstrate strong support in the US as well.
But what are the specific benefits of open access that make it worthwhile as a public policy? There are many, but to name a few:
Saving money. A recent study claims that open access could save European countries hundreds of millions of Euros every year. And Harvard University argues that traditional journal subscription prices are too high; open access is a solution.
Increasing the impact of research. As John Wilbanks explains, the process for developing new knowledge about the world depends on the work of others. Thus, the more people with access to the journal articles and publications, the faster we can develop new knowledge as a society. One way to measure that process is to look at citation rates between publications. According to a majority of related studies, open access articles tend to have higher citation rates and exposure, indicating higher impact.
Engaging patients in disease treatment. Chordoma Foundation's Josh Sommer was diagnosed with a malignant bone cancer called a chordoma. During his treatment, he read numerous scientific articles so he could talk to doctors about his care, and ended up helping to conduct research in the field. Had he not been a student at a university with subscription access, he wouldn't have been able to retrieve research about his disease. Today he’s an advocate for open access to research.
Josh's experience is not unique. Patients, researchers, international institutions, companies, nonprofits, and government agencies are all negatively impacted by restricted access to science and research contained within journals. It's time governments use the carrot embodied in research grant budgets to change the culture of scientific research. A culture that values sharing, collaboration, and openness will have greater impact on people’s health, society, and the economy.
Alex Kozak is a Policy Analyst at Google.