September 4, 2014
One of the arguments used most often against Open Access is that it is redundant. Supporters of this argument maintain that average people cannot make use of scientific research, and that professional researchers already have access to all the research they require though their libraries, which subscribe to all the important journals.
Almost everything in this argument is false. First of all, it is worth spotting that this argument is very typical to the old and well-known syndrome that might be called ‘professional conservatism’. Professional conservatives defend their positions by claiming that there is only one way of gaining the abilities they have (the very same way they did). According to academic conservatives to become a ‘real scientist’ you have to graduate from one of the top tier universities and then get a job there. They ignore the fact that there were always some people who were able to become top representatives of their fields without working at any university (like Albert Einstein or Alfred Schütz).
It is true that contemporaneously scientific knowledge is unbelievable complex, thus a huge amount of time is needed to become an expert in any field. Although at the very same time, this knowledge is broadly available, thanks to digital reproduction and computer networks. Top universities provide on-line courses for free, classical scientific works are digitalized and available globally, whole fields of science are turning to open data and open access models (at this moment virtually all data in paleogenomics is freely available, and 12 out of 15 journals in high energy physics are open access).
On the other hand, a big part of knowledge is still hidden behind pay walls. Old, well-known journals are usually published in a subscription-based model, so they can only be read in libraries that subscribe to these journals. Access to this knowledge is very expensive, and rich universities spend millions of dollars on subscriptions. People who do not work at these universities usually have no access to conventional journals or just to very few of them, subscribed to by their library. But do they need this access? I think that we need them to have access.
One, famous beneficent of Open Access to knowledge is Jack Andraka, who won several prestigious awards for his research on early cancer detection, which he conducted at the age of 15. Andraka claimed that he used the knowledge he was learning during his science classes coupled together with the information he found on YouTube, Google, and Wikipedia. Regardless, of the real value of his scientific work, which will be determined in the future, it is worth mentioning that he was able to obtain sufficient knowledge to interest specialists in the field of cancer biology, without even starting college and relying instead only on open sources of information. Without Open Access Andraka would not be able to even start his work. And I hope that when more works are available for free there will be more people like Andraka.
Although the Jack Andraka case is most pronounced effect of open access to scientific knowledge, it is not the most important one. Not only teenagers have limited access to peer-reviewed publications and not only brilliant people are able to make use of them. The number of PhD graduates is increasing and not all of them are able to find jobs in wealthy research institutions. In the United States, 1.35 million doctorates were awarded between 1920 and 1999 and this tendency is growing. But the global leader of the annual production of PhDs is China, which outnumbered the United States in 2008. Other countries, including those lying on periphery of the scientific world and lacking financial resources are also increasing their number of research graduates. (more here).
For millions of people, who work at research institutions in major part of the world (I mean in low or middle income countries) access to big part of peer reviewed literature is closed. It is closed also for people living in developed countries, who are not hired at universities. Big number of PhD are working in industry, in non-government sector or running own bushinesses. All of them are able to read, understand, create, cite and improve academic papers. And the community, not individuals are making science. Excluding these people from the scientific community harms scientific development. All of them could work much more effectively if they only had access to all works they need. By loosing their input we are also loosing an opportunity to enrich discussion on scientific knowledge. Thus I think science benefits the most from Open Access.