Open Access seeks to return scholarly publishing to its original purpose: to spread knowledge and allow that knowledge to be built upon. Price barriers should not prevent students (or anyone) from getting access to research they need. Open Access, and the open availability and searchability of scholarly research that it entails, will have a significant positive impact on everything from education to the practice of medicine to the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate. Explore why Open Access is so important to a number of groups... chances are you probably belong to more than one.
Students have an especially large stake in the debate about access to research. Expanding access will pay great dividends to students in a variety of ways:
A complete education: students in any discipline need access to the latest research to have a complete education in their field of study and hit the ground running after graduation. Limited access to research makes students settle for the information that is available rather than that which is most relevant. Open Access can ensure students get the best possible education and are not artificially limited by the selection of scholarly journals their campuses are able to provide.
If your professors can’t read it, they can’t teach it: when professors can’t access the most recent research, they are deprived of the opportunity to bring that material into the classroom. With science advancing at an ever-increasing pace, it’s crucial that professors have access to cutting-edge research, so students’ education isn’t outdated before they even finish a course. This problem was recently highlighted by Dr. Gary Ward in a press conference for the Federal Research Public Access Act:
In my role as educator, I often find myself teaching my graduate and medical students what I have access to rather than what they most need to know. Just as one example, in a recent lecture I was preparing for our medical students... I was only able to access about two thirds of the articles that I needed in order to make sure that I was providing these budding young doctors with everything they needed to know about the subject. I can tell you that’s extremely frustrating to me as an educator and it’s clearly not in the best interests of my students. This problem isn’t unique to the University of Vermont. Every academic institution faces this problem – from the best-funded private institutions down to the small liberal arts colleges and community colleges. It’s just a question of degree.
- Dr. Gary Ward, Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, and Co-Director, Vermont Center for Immunology and Infectious Diseases, University of Vermont1
Research for papers: it’s a familiar story; you’re writing a paper for class and you need to cite articles from peer-reviewed journals. Eventually, you find an article that looks good — maybe via a search engine, a footnote from another source, or a reference in an index. You search the Web for the full text, but you can’t get past the abstract. You look on your library’s Web site but they don’t have a subscription. You’re stuck. Maybe that article would have been a major source for your work — you’ll never know. You don’t have access. Open Access changes that. No more worrying about whether you’re on the campus network or if your library has a subscription. If you’re online, you have access, period — anywhere in the world.
The current system puts students from smaller schools at a disadvantage: due to the staggering price of journal subscriptions, not even the largest, most well-funded institutions can provide their students with the complete scholarly record. Students at smaller or less well-funded colleges and universities must make do with their fraction of access their library can afford. Students at community colleges, who are a significant portion of students in higher education, suffer even more severely.
Researching beyond the degree: many students, especially on the graduate level, pursue degrees in order to become qualified researchers. Whether they become professors, doctors, lawyers, or entrepreneurs, they will continuously rely on access to research in order to make an impact in their respective field. Yet, students' access to journals expires along with their library card at graduation. If they take a job at another university, that institution may have a very different level of access than what they need, and if they take a job outside of the university setting, they will no longer have the library to provide them any access to journals.
Better visibility and higher impact for your scholarship: Studies have shown a significant increase in citations when articles are made openly available. Below is a chart from a recent summary analysis that shows the Open Access citation advantage in different fields2:
Avoiding duplication: no researcher wants to waste time and money conducting a study if they know it has been attempted elsewhere. But, duplication of effort is all-too-possible when researchers can’t effectively communicate with one another and make results known to others in their field and beyond.
Research is useless if it’s not shared: even the best research is ineffectual if others aren’t able to read and build on it. When price barriers keep articles locked away, science cannot achieve its full potential.
Text mining: today millions of articles are published every year, so many that a researcher could only hope to read a small subset of all articles in a given field. Ttext mining could be very beneficial by giving researchers an over-arching view of a particular field and uncovering trends and connections within their own field and between seemingly unrelated fields that no human researcher could discern. However, when many articles are inaccessible due to subscription barriers or being posted in non computer-readable formats, these tools cannot reach their true potential.
More knowledge leads to better outcomes. As President Obama noted in his 2009 address to the American Medical Association, "too many doctors and patients are making decisions without the benefit of the latest research."3 Physicians need access to a wide-variety of current and high quality medical information to make the best decisions for their patients. While those in large academic health centers may have access to a wide variety of clinical and research journals, those at smaller institutions and in more rural settings have more limited access to the current research findings and information on best practices. Opening access to research will allow doctors access to all relevant information, enabling them to make better decisions - decisions based on the most up-to-date medical knowledge, leading to more effective treatment and better outcomes.
Patients and their advocates need and deserve access to the corpus of medical research. Imagine that you've just been diagnosed with a serious illness - after talking to your doctor, you would probably want to investigate the medical literature yourself to compare possible treatments and better understand your situation; however, you'll almost certainly find yourself unable to access the vast majority of medical journals without a subscription or spending up to $30 for each article. Patient advocates are some of the strongest supporters of Open Access, because they see first hand how crucial access to the latest research is to doctors, patients, and medical researchers.
Developing countries are home to the same groups that require access to research in order to thrive (students, researchers, doctors, etc), but they often face much steeper access barriers. While many institutions in the developed world can afford journal budgets of several million or more dollars, institutions in developing countries must make do with a fraction of that budget.
Students: colleges and universities in developing countries face even tougher challenges in trying to acquire the latest scholarly research than their counterparts in the developed world, and often suffer from anemic library budgets. Open Access will greatly increase the information available to these students and significantly improve the quality of education available to millions of people in the process.
Researchers: not having access to important journals in their field prevents researchers in the developing world from contributing to the advancement of science and the humanities.
Doctors: like their patients, doctors in developing countries face steep challenges in gaining access to the latest medical knowledge, often forcing them to rely on outdated medical practices, inevitably costing lives.
Open Access raises the profile of research performed in the developing world - locally and globally. Researchers in the developing world do important work on issues facing those outside of the developed world, such as HIV/AIDS and diseases of poverty; however, when this research isn't made openly available, it's impact both on their own country's policy makers and on the wider research community is limited.
Access to the latest research speeds innovation: price barriers prevent small businesses from accessing and utilizing cutting-edge research. In fields from biotechnology to alternative energies, small businesses would greatly benefit from more complete access to the results of research. Secretary of Energy Chu has specifically mentioned small business as a driving force in developing revolutionary new energy technology4. However, without access to the latest research, small businesses cannot harness that research to create the new technologies that could potentially drive entire new areas of the economy.
Return on our investment: making research publicly available as soon as possible will allow other researchers to build on new ideas as soon as they are published, while in the current system these ideas might remained locked away and unable to advance to state of the field. To have the greatest possible impact, the research we fund as taxpayers must be made available to the largest possible audience to make use of and build upon new ideas.
Exercising our right to research: as taxpayers who pay for much of the research published in journals, we have a collective right to access the information resulting from our investment.
Demonstrated benefits: numerous publishers, both non-profit and for-profit, voluntarily make their articles openly available at the time of publication or within 6-12 months. Many have switched from a closed, subscription model to an open one as a strategic business decision to increase their journal's exposure and impact, and have done so with great success5.
 "The Open Access citation advantage: Studies and results to date," Alma Swan, 04/2010 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "Transcript of President Obama's Remarks," American Medical Association, 06/15/09 (accessed 08/02/10)
 "Small business captures largest share of renewable energy grants," Renewable Energy Focus, 03/26/10 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "Updating Realistic Access," Mike Rossner, Journal of Cell Biology, 05/03/10 (accessed 07/28/10)