Right now, the vast majority of published scientific research – and the vast majority of prestigious new research – is hidden behind paywalls. Most scientific publications charge readers high fees for access with prices rising faster than inflation. With annual membership the nature Cost $199, science Starting at $79 per year, and The Lancet Charges $227. And these are just a few of the hundreds of journals in which new research appears.
This money goes to the publishers, not to the academics who actually write the scientific papers. And while some top journals offer researchers the option to make their submissions open to read, they do this by reversing their fee structure, instead placing the burden on authors.
nature, For example, authors not affiliated with institutions charge about $9,500 to display a paper without a paywall. Because funded research is already unprofitable for researchers, this is a significant obstacle that disproportionately hits younger academics and low-income countries.
But in an effort to dismantle the paywall and make science more accessible to everyone, the White House announced new guidelines last month requiring all taxpayer-funded research, including data used for studies, to be made public at no cost. 2025.
The Biden plan is one of the biggest wins yet for the “free science” movement. In practice, this often refers to publishing papers that describe new scientific findings immediately and without paywalls. It also includes publicly sharing entire datasets and code used for analysis.
The movement toward transparency and open-access science began with activism in the 1990s and reached the White House in 2013 during the Obama administration, a force in US politics as early as 2007. Biden’s interest in open science predates his presidency; In 2016, he noted, “Taxpayers fund $5 billion in cancer research each year, but after it’s published, almost all taxpayer-funded research stays behind walls.”
There’s a straightforward argument behind making publicly funded research available: Taxpayers are already paying to fund the study, so why should they pay a fee to a journal to see the results? Making the latest data and research findings freely available allows scientists and entrepreneurs to build on new discoveries more quickly, and members of the public have a more accurate sense of the state of scientific knowledge.
But despite decades of advocacy for “open science,” the idea is not universally accepted — and there is no consistent definition of what it means.
The push — and pushback — for open science didn’t start with the U.S., and past international efforts may hint at how the new guidelines will play out.
In 2018, Robert-Jan Smits, Senior Advisor for Open Access and Innovation at the European Political Strategy Center, took advantage of growing support in Europe to establish a movement to open access to science. Although a radical departure from previous paywall-based European standards for academic publication, he recruited several influential funders to require grant recipients to make their research public.
In his recently published, freely downloadable book, Plan S for shockSmits and co-author Rachel Pels argue that science can be more successful as an international, collaborative effort, but currently, scientists in poor countries are shut out by high entry fees. If society is to take full advantage of new discoveries, the results must be available to everyone, not just academics.
Compared to paywall research, open-access papers show a disproportionate increase in citations by other scientists, massively underestimating real impact: Dutch survey Springer Nature 40% of visitors to their open-access site were not academics and had a personal or professional interest in the topic.
Under Plan S, which came into effect in 2021 in 12 European countries, scientists who receive grant money from the Combined Fund make their research open access as a condition of that funding. They can post to free public repositories like Zenodo and arXiv, or pay a fee to a traditional journal. Universities make contracts directly with publishers to cover these fees, but some funding agencies have introduced their own programs to cover submission fees for funded research.
Biden’s new plan would have similar requirements, but apply to a larger number of researchers and universities that receive funding from the US federal government, which includes about 400 different institutions and agencies. The transition will be completed by the end of 2025.
Freeing up research paid for largely by taxpayer money may seem like a no-brainer, but over time, the potential downsides of open science efforts like the Plan S mandate have become increasingly apparent. Pay-to-publish but open-to-read platforms bring more research to the public, They can add barriers to researchers and worsen some of the existing inequalities in academia. Scientific publishing remains a profitable industry and is highly profitable for publishers. Changing the fees on authors will not change this.
Many newly established open-access journals waive fees altogether, but even if they do not seek to make a profit, they still have to cover their operating costs. They turn to advertising revenue, individual donations or philanthropic grants, corporate sponsorships and crowdfunding.
But open-access forums often lack the prestige of well-known journals the nature. Scientists early in their careers – as well as those at less affluent universities in low-income countries – often rely on precarious, short-term grant funding to carry out their research. His career depends on putting up an impressive publication record, which is already an uphill battle.
Established journals are reluctant to commit to open access, as submission fees may deter potential researchers from sending in their work. And if journals do not charge submission fees or reader subscriptions, they will have to turn to other sources of income, which is not sustainable in the long run.
There are other ways in which the open science movement fails to live up to the optimistic claims of its advocates. So far, the movement has focused on publicly funded science; Corporate R&D and privately funded research are exempted from the mandate. While supporting commercial innovation and entrepreneurship is one of the clear goals of the Biden administration, some groups are concerned that the “commercialization” of science actually reduces transparency and that financial conflicts of interest in commercially funded research lead to biased studies.
The impact of the open science movement on projects like Plan S is growing, but it’s hard to gauge how far it will go now. Their consortium of funders supported 200,000 new studies in 2020, accounting for 12% of articles in highly cited journals.
The White House’s guidelines would massively increase adoption — the US government plans to fund 195,000 to 263,000 studies in 2020 — but won’t be enough to shift the world of scientific publishing to a new, more accessible model. If science is truly intended to serve the public interest, it must be in the public interest to make it available.
A version of this story was originally published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!