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Open Access and scientific breakthroughs

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A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Peter Suber and Darius Cuplinskas, daringly entitled “Open Access to Scientific Research Can Save Lives”. It relates the case of 15 year-old Jack Andraka, who recently announced he had invented a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer.

Not only is Andraka’s test very cheap, but it also happens to be 168 times faster and 400 times more accurate than previously existing tests. Moreover, it may also be able to detect other types of cancer. The authors note that if it were not for the development of the Open Access model, the teenage inventor would not have been able to gain access to thousands of dollars worth of scientific publications. Chances are that in the era of traditional publishing, when most scientific articles only appeared in subscription-only journals, the young Jack Andraka would not have been able to make such an extraordinary medical breakthrough.

Of course, the extent to which Open Access really had an impact on Andraka’s success is open for discussion. However, it remains unquestionable that the new publishing model provides unprecedented access to research results, not only for a small circle of scientists, but for anyone who is willing to reach for them.

In their article, the authors also formulate a basic postulate, which aims to promulgate the ideas behind Open Access publishing:

Every institution of higher learning should ensure that peer-reviewed versions of all future scholarly articles by its faculty members are made open-access through a designated repository that captures the institution’s intellectual output.

All public and private agencies that support scientific research should have policies assuring that peer-reviewed versions of all scholarly articles arising from research they have paid for be made accessible through a suitable archive.

When a given publisher will not allow access on an agency’s terms, the funder should require grantees to look for another publisher. Funders should treat publication costs as research costs and should help grantees pay reasonable publication fees at fee-based open-access journals.

Research institutions, including funders, should support the development and maintenance of the tools, directories, and resources essential to the progress and sustainability of open access.

These propositions have been brought forward countless times over the past few years without facing any real opposition. However, it is still difficult to imagine implementing them within our current situation – especially given how much education systems can differ from one country to another. What is more, private institutions are not necessarily ready to share the results of their research with the rest of the community.

This raises the question as to whether universities can possibly afford to cover the full cost of OA publishing and whether such funding should not benefit from government support. Besides, hegemony of the Open Access model would require a complete rethinking of the point system that currently governs the career path of scientists and academics. Ultimately, since the decision of publishing in Open Access is up to the scientists themselves, it constitutes one of the many challenges faced by contemporary science.


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