By Todd Reitzel
Science empowers us to improve many aspects of society, including saving lives and improving health and quality of life. Even as pharmaceutical science has enabled tremendous advancements in health, it has also become a global endeavor enabled by the Internet and the spread of knowledge to a growing number of scientists around the world.
The American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS) participates in this global knowledge dissemination endeavor. With the help of our partner, Springer Science+Business Media, we publish three research journals that are widely accessible around the world. Not only do all 10,000 AAPS scientist members have full-text access to our journals, but scientists at over 14,500 institutions have this access. Over 5,000 of those institutions receive access for free or at a discount via the Research4Life program. Every one of the 9,000+ other institutions receive their access via consortial (ie, discounted) deals. No one pays full price.
Yet like all worthwhile endeavors, publishing requires funding to sustain itself. We do not really expect pharmaceutical products to be free, nor does anyone but Bernie Sanders expect a free college education for all. So someone has to pay something. In fact, in its 2012 memo Harvard University’s Faculty Advisory Council entreats faculty and students to use open access journals or “ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription cost.” So Harvard’s council expects someone to pay, either an author submitting to an OA journal or a subscriber to a journal with a reasonable subscription price.
I agree with Jack Andraka that we need to make research more easily accessible. As the father of a 15-year-old, I hope she will be as interested in scientific knowledge as in Katy Perry’s latest song. Of course, one of those two things is more valuable. Even so, we need to find ways to ensure that young people and persons in low-income countries get access to knowledge when they need it. Those people represent hope for future advancement, and it’s important we regard them not as customers but as contributors to the advancement of science and to the application of knowledge.
Most nonprofit professional associations provide alternatives for those who don’t possess routine access to research. Most association publishers participate in Research4Life. Most allow authors to self-archive. Many associations offer discounted student memberships that allow access to their research journals; for example, annual membership dues for an AAPS student membership are only $40. And my former employer, the American Society of Hematology, offers patients a free copy of any article that might be useful to their treatment. No doubt, more can be done to ensure equitable access to research.
Complaints about the cost of scholarly articles predate the Web. Indeed, the Web was seen as a way to disrupt scientific publishing, to better facilitate scientific communication and research dissemination. In fact, publishers have invested heavily in the Web, which ultimately has made research more accessible and relieved research libraries of the need to keep paper archives. About 10 years ago, the journal Blood partnered with HighWire Press and Google to scan in 50 years of back content and then immediately made this content freely available to all.
Open access is not a silver bullet for ensuring the free dissemination of knowledge. Most people, including open access advocate Michael Eisen, know that someone must pay: “People point to journals that they think are run for free, but they’re not run for free. They’re either run by volunteers or there’s a subsidy. There’s no such thing as a free journal. It costs money.”
I applaud Mr. Andraka’s idealism. We must be ever-focused on improving access to research for all those who need or want it. Let’s just not forget that someone must pay something.