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Open Access on the Frontlines for Transparency and Innovation

The Internet should be a place where we can share ideas and educate ourselves unimpeded by unfair paywalls or backwards licensing—and the academic publishing world is at the frontlines of the battle to make it that way.

Academic research is a driving force behind technological innovations, medical breakthroughs, and policy decisions. The open access movement has been working for decades to make that research more open and accessible to the public. “Open access” refers to the practice of making research and other scholarly materials freely and immediately available online. Ideally, this happens under licenses that allow full reuse, sharing, and adaptation.

At first glance, this may not seem like a radical idea. Researchers tend to want to share their work; most research is federally funded and thus paid for by taxpayers; and public access to research pushes innovation forward. On top of all that, the Internet makes sharing and collaborating easier than ever, for professional researchers and amateur problem-solvers alike.

But academic publishing today is stuck in a traditional system that was built on paper, not on the web. In a paper world, we needed publishers as an intermediary between researchers and readers. In a digital world, however, giant publishers have taken on the role of gatekeepers and legal bullies.

This leaves us with a system in which publishers charge libraries and users exorbitant fees for access to subscription journals and paywalled databases. The average price for a one-year institutional subscription to a scholarly journal is in the thousands, with some specialty publications charging as much as $40,000.

Without a wealthy library or university footing the bill, ordinary users may have to pay upwards of $30 a pop to access research articles—a difficult proposition for a patient researching their medical care options, a high school student doing homework, a non-profit employee analyzing public policy, or an unemployed person getting up-to-date on their field while looking for a job.

The open access response to this restrictive status quo boils down to two primary goals: making research accessible, and making research reusable.

Free to Access

Universities and the federal government hold many of the keys when it comes to unlocking access to research. As these creators and funders of research change their policies, publishers will feel the pressure to migrate to open access business models.

Even Harvard University—the richest in America—cannot afford all the journal subscriptions its faculty and students need. To save funds and further its mission of creating and disseminating knowledge, Harvard established the country’s first university open access policy in 2008. Since then, the University of California system, MIT, the University of Oregon, Duke, and countless others have followed suit, often thanks to student activism.

The federal government funds a huge slice of the research world, both inside and outside of universities. In 2013, FASTR—the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act—was introduced, proposing that every federal agency that spends more than $100 million on research grants be required to adopt an open access policy. After all, when taxpayer dollars fund research from the likes of NASA and the NSF, the public should have access to that research.

Free to Reuse

Open access depends on more than removing cost barriers. It also means giving the public freedom to use research. Under the current academic publishing model, even the simple act of sharing can be a crime.

When Diego Gomez, a Master’s student in Colombia, shared a colleague’s thesis with other scientists over the Internet, he was doing what any grad student would do: sharing research he found useful so others could benefit from it. But the author of the paper filed a lawsuit, and Diego’s act of sharing became a copyright violation punishable by four to eight years in prison.

In the U.S., activist Aaron Swartz also met unjust charges on 13 criminal counts for downloading millions of articles from academic journal database JSTOR. The charges would have put him in jail for years under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

If other users see Diego’s or Aaron’s cases and fear the consequences that can come with copyright infringement allegations, everyday activities like sharing academic resources can become intimidating. These cases remind us that sharing and building on existing research is integral to the open access vision. That could mean anything from translation to remixing to large-scale analysis. In an open access world, these innovative, collaborative actions would not be criminal.

Standing Up For Open Access

You can join EFF in speaking out for open access principles of transparency and innovation on national and international levels.

For a bill whose name sounds like “faster,” FASTR has been remarkably slow to move through Congress. EFF is rallying members of Congress to support FASTR now and ensure public access to public funded research.

Our activism to move FASTR is only the tip of the iceberg. Research exists within a web of laws that restrict the public’s access to and use of knowledge. EFF is working toward reform in areas including overbearing copyright law, patent practices, and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Internationally, we have been standing with Diego Gomez for two and a half years since his trial started—and we continue to stand with him and demand global open access today.

Fulfilling our shared human right to information with open access could be transformative. Only when research is available to everyone—not just those with large budgets or institutional connections—can we fully promote innovation and creativity.