How the Internet is Changing Open Access

Roger Pellegrini

Graduate student Diego Gomez faces up to eight years in prison.1 In the past month, other offenders have been granted the same prison sentence for crimes including a fatal hit-and-run2 and repeated sexual assault of minors;3 one man even shot someone in the head!4 What was Diego Gomez’s offense? He posted another scientist’s research paper online.

As a student from a small university, Gomez had trouble accessing academic papers that were blocked by expensive paywalls. When he came across helpful research articles, he would share them online, enabling access for other scientists in similar financial situations. Now, he’s being prosecuted by the Colombian government. While some may dismiss this as an isolated incident (born largely from Colombia’s harsh criminal copyright laws), this situation highlights the growing disconnect between scientists’ demand for open access and the stranglehold of traditional publishing:


Why bother with open access?

Today, most people would agree that publicly funded research should be publicly available—but the majority of this work remains behind paywalls. While open access publishing ensures unrestricted (free) access and unrestricted reuse, traditional publishing charges expensive subscription fees to readers. For example, in 2009, the University of Michigan paid Elsevier a whopping $2,164,830!5 Publishers might be responsible for the costs of managing the editorial process, formatting texts, and printing, but they aren’t employing the scientists that actually do (and write up) the work, and they certainly aren’t paying the scientists that review the manuscripts! Indeed, Elsevier made $3.2 billion in 2012,6 and many academic publishers have profit margins approaching 40%.7 Worse still, subscription prices for journals continue to rise, at a rate that’s outpaced inflation by over 250%.8

This quickly becomes prohibitively expensive for universities in low-income countries, and certainly, for most individuals. As Harold Varmus (a Nobel Laureate and PLoS co-founder) has noted,9

“You’re a taxpayer. Science affects your life, your health. Don’t you want to be able to see what science produces?”

At the very least, shouldn’t your doctors have access to these papers? And what about patients and family members? Remarkably, one woman was able to diagnose her own disease by reading primary research articles; open access advocate Michael Eisen tweets the take-home message:

story of woman who diagnosed own genetic disease is why ALL scientific literature MUST be free to EVERYONE— Michael Eisen goes to 11X (@mbeisen) August 20, 2014

How can the Internet help?

Nearly everyone (except publishers) sees the value of open access, but putting it into practice has been more difficult. In 2008, the federal government mandated that all results from NIH-funded research must be made publicly available. However, this public access policy wasn’t actually enforced until 2012!10 Since then, the NIH has withheld grant awards to those that ignored the policy, but even so, the compliance rate is only 82%.10

Part of the problem is awareness. (Yes, the cliche of the oblivious/absentminded scientist is occasionally accurate.) In a survey of (NIH-funded) faculty members, 94% agreed that federally-funded research should be freely accessible, but 30% were unaware or unfamiliar with NIH’s public access policy!11 Another survey showed that 30% of US scientists didn’t even know if they had published open access before.7

This is where the Internet comes in. After all, social media’s strength lies in advocacy… and loudness. As more scientists connect with each other, public awareness will spread more easily; this will apply the necessary pressure on (and within) the scientific and publishing communities.

One high-profile example from last year is Randy Schekman’s public condemnation of “luxury journals”. Of course, before pledging to publish open access, Schekman had already won a Nobel Prize—for research in numerous Cell and Science papers. Still, it was the publicity from his Nobel that provided the platform for initiating this conversation.

Another notable advocate is Michael Eisen, a fruit fly geneticist and co-founder of PLoS. Early on, his vocal support for open access was regarded as potentially damaging to his career:9

“I was very clearly advised by my colleagues that I was being insane. I would never get tenure if I didn’t toe a more traditional publishing line.”

Even today, professors worry about their tenure prospects when publishing in open access journals; a recent survey suggests that scientists still consider open access journals to be less prestigious, and of lower quality.7 Regardless, Michael Eisen eventually received tenure at Berkeley and became an HHMI Investigator—all while exclusively publishing open access! It is possible, and role models like Eisen are beginning to change the basic misconceptions that surround (and impede) open access.

Furthermore, there’s already evidence that publishers are starting to acknowledge demands for open access. In fact, the first Nature-branded journal to be fully open access (Nature Communications) was just announced last month.12 In addition, journals like Science have begun opening access to high profile topics like Nobel Prize-winning work, and recently, Ebola research. Naturally, Twitter responded by saying it was all a publicity stunt:

#AAASmakes articles related to high-profile topics freely available to hide their paywalls from public view @phylogenomics@AAAS_News— Michael Eisen goes to 11X (@mbeisen) August 21, 2014

Even so, it’s encouraging to see publishers responding (incrementally) to public demand, especially in cases with high visibility. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the first step towards change involves leveraging the strength of social media—by increasing awareness and lobbying for reform of the system. While the Internet will get us there faster, in the end, it's our collective action that has to inspire the progress we want to see.

Support #OAWeek2014!


1. Sutton, Maira. “Colombian student faces prison charges for sharing an academic article online.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. 23 July 2014. Retrieved 25 September 2014 from

2. “Man sentenced to 8 years in prison in Thornton hit and run death” ABC7 News Denver. 15 October 2014. Retrieved 20 October 2014 from

3. “Former Staples swim coach sentenced to eight years in prison for sex assaults on two Fairfield girls.” Minuteman News Center. 4 October 2014. Retrieved 20 October 2014 from

4. Macdonald, Evan. “Man sentenced to eight years in prison for shooting at Medina apartments.” Northeast Ohia Media Group. 23 September 2014. Retrieved 20 October from

5. Bohannon, John. “How much did your university payyou’re your journals?” Science Insider. 16 June 2014. Retrieved 25 September 2014 from

6. Clark, Liat. “How ‘Google Science’ could transform academic publishing.” Wired UK. 13 August 2014. Retrieved 25 September 2014 from

7. “Grand Openings: Changes that will bring scientific discovery more freely into the public domain are happening. About time too.” The Economist. 27 September 2014. Retrieved 25 September 2014 from

8. Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD Comics). 25 October 2012. Open Access Explained!

[video file]

. Retrieved from

9. Mechanic, Michael. “Steal this research paper! (You already paid for it.)” Mother Jones. September/October 2013 Issue. Retrieved 25 September 2014 from

10. Van Noorden, Richard. “Funders punish open-access dodgers.” Nature News. 9 April 2014. Retrieved 15 October 2014 from

11. Charbonneau DH, McGlone J. (2013) Faculty experiences with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) public access policy, compliance issues, and copyright practices. J Med Libr Assoc 101(1):21-5.

12. Clark, Liat. “Nature Communications goes open access.” Wired UK. 23 September 2014. Retrieved 25 September 2014 from

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