Do we need Robin Hood to improve our access to medical research?

A graduate student from Kazakhstan named Alexandra Elbakyan  went into hiding after illegally providing free online access to just about every scientific paper ever published, on topics ranging from acoustics to zymology. Paraphrasing part of the United Nations Charter, Ms. Elbakyan said, “Everyone has the right to freely share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Her file-sharing website is here: Sci-Hub. A New York Times piece on her actions states:

Her protest against scholarly journals’ paywalls has earned her rock-star status among advocates for open access, and has shined a light on how scientific findings that could inform personal and public policy decisions on matters as consequential as health care, economics and the environment are often prohibitively expensive to read and impossible to aggregate and datamine.

In response to the suit Elsevier filed against her, supported by industry amicus briefs,  Ms. Elbakyan wrote a letter to the judge pointing out that Elsevier, like other medical journal publishers, pays nothing to acquire researchers’ studies or for the volunteer peer reviewers or editors, while charging high fees to researchers and the public (who pay for some of the research with tax dollars) to be able to read the articles.

The current high fees charged by medical publishers–$30 per view of a single article–limits broad access to biomedical research to scientists at really big, well-funded universities in the developed world–universities where the research libraries can afford to pay annual subscription fees ranging from $2,000 to $35,000 per title if they don’t buy subscriptions of bundled titles, which cost millions.  These costs have risen steeply, as in recent years most medical journals have been taken over by for-profit publishing corporations such as Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley-Blackwell. In 2010 Elsevier reported profits of 36 percent on revenues of $3.2-billion. In 2011, its chief executive, Erik Engstrom, earned $4.6-million. The New York Times piece stated:

“The prices have been rising twice as fast as the price of health care over the past 20 years, so there’s a real scandal there to be exposed,” said Peter Suber, Harvard’s director of the office of scholarly communication. “It’s important that Harvard is suffering when it has the largest budget of any academic library in the world.”

Among the legal alternatives to Sci-Hub, one is to encourage researchers to publish in open-accesss journals like those under the umbrella of the Public Library of Science, or PLOS. Open-access journals require authors to pay fees of $1,500 to $3,000 per article to cover the publisher’s costs.

A second option is to upload papers to pre-print repositories where research papers are made publicly-available before they have undergone peer-review, editing and publication in a journal. Several Nobel scientists have been leading the way in this approach to information age defiance. A downside of this route is that some journals may not accept manuscripts that have already been shared in this manner.

A third approach, more of a protest, is to refuse to peer-review for free. If enough academics refuse to perform peer-review without compensation, publishers may revise their business models.

Other advances are promising. The White House issued a directive requiring agencies that make more than $100 million in research grants to develop plans so that recipients release their findings to the public within a year of publication. There is also legislation before Congress that requires release of findings in only six months. Private funders such as the Wellcome TrustHoward Hughes Medical Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have also stipulated a requirement of open access to resulting articles for work they fund.


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