Science Behind Bars: The Ethical Battle Over Paywalled Research

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Imagine a world where a groundbreaking cancer treatment is discovered, but only the wealthy can access the research. The paywall problem isn't just an academic debate - it's a matter of life and death.

The world of academic publishing is at a crossroads. A growing "open science" movement is advocating to make scientific papers free for everyone to access, instead of hidden behind the paywalls of prestigious journals that charge hundreds of dollars for subscriptions. In January, the White House threw its weight behind this effort, announcing that by 2025, any research funded by US taxpayers must be made publicly available at no cost.

In the words of then-Vice President Biden in 2016, "The taxpayers fund $5 billion a year in cancer research every year, but once it's published, nearly all of that taxpayer-funded research sits behind walls."1 Proponents argue there are clear benefits to making science more open and accessible. Publicly-funded research that is free to read allows scientists to more quickly build on new discoveries and gives the public a better understanding of scientific progress. Paywalls create barriers, shutting out researchers and institutions in lower-income countries and anyone without the means to pay steep subscription fees.

The ethical imperative of open access has been highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. In February 2020, a group of online archivists created an open-access directory of over 5,000 scientific studies about coronaviruses that anyone could browse and download without encountering a paywall.2 The organizers saw it as a "moral imperative" to make this research widely available to fight the virus and save lives, even if its legality was questionable due to potential copyright issues.2

However, the push for open access is not without challenges and potential downsides. Someone has to cover the costs of publishing, and shifting from a subscription model to charging authors means fees that could deter submissions, especially from junior researchers and those with limited funding. New open access journals lack the cachet of prestigious established publications that academics rely on for career advancement.

There are also concerns that exempting privately-funded research reduces transparency and allows for financial conflicts of interest, and that "commercialization" of science could introduce bias. Some argue that if science is truly meant to serve the public interest, then the public should have access - but exactly how to make that economically viable for publishers remains an open question.

Meanwhile, as the open science movement slowly gains ground, millions are already accessing paywalled research for free through sites like Sci-Hub. Started in 2011 by a researcher frustrated by high journal costs, Sci-Hub has been accused of illegally obtaining and sharing papers and now hosts over 85 million articles.3 Though controversial for its piracy, it demonstrates a massive unmet demand for access.  

With the new White House mandate, the open science movement in the US is poised to take a major leap forward, joining existing efforts in Europe. But a complete transition will likely require rethinking academic publishing incentives and business models. The growing sentiment that hiding science behind paywalls is unethical when research affects the public good, as seen with the coronavirus archive, may accelerate the push for change. But for now, the battle over whether science should be accessible to everyone or remain behind paywalls continues.

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References

1. "Remarks by the Vice President at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting," The White House, April 20, 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/04/20/remarks-vice-president-american-association-cancer-research-annual.

2. Bender, Maddie. "'It's a Moral Imperative:' Archivists Made a Directory of 5,000 Coronavirus Studies to Bypass Paywalls." Vice, February 3, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/z3b3v5/archivists-are-bypassing-paywalls-to-share-studies-about-coronaviruses.

3. Himmelstein, Daniel S., Ariel R. Romero, Jacob G. Levernier, Thomas A. Munro, Stephen R. McLaughlin, Bastian G. Tzovaras, and Casey S. Greene. "Sci-Hub Provides Access to Nearly All Scholarly Literature." ELife 7 (February 9, 2018). https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.32822.

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