I frequently need to read journal articles, both for my research in the lab, my own research, and for general interest. The internet is a great help, allowing me to easily find what I need. In fact, allowing scientists to easily share information is why the World Wide Web was created.

This makes pay-walls more frustrating.

In the course of my reading, I keep running into a serious problem: not all journals are open access. Some, like Nature and Science, are big enough that they can pretty much do whatever they want, because people will still read them. They charge enough for institutional subscriptions that university libraries can’t always pay for the necessary archive access. This forces professors and students to buy their own individual account. Others, such as ingentaconnect try to charge as much as $213 for a single article! That’s more than a grad student subscription to Nature or Science. This is a problem. Especially since most useful research is funded by the public.

It is inexcusable that a simple idea—that no American should be denied access to biomedical research their tax dollars paid to produce—could be scuttled by a greedy publisher who bought access to a member of Congress.

Michael Eisen

A partial workaround is to use interlibrary loan. This requires filling out request forms and waiting for articles that may not even be relevant. When the articles do come, sometimes after a significant delay, they are often unreadable low resolution scans.

A slightly better solution is the journals that allow the authors to publicly archive their own work. Thanks to Google Scholar, these are usually easy to find when they exist. But the author-posted versions of papers are sometimes late drafts, not the final published version.

The real solution is to require all studies that receive public funding to publish in open access journals. Not having open access to journal articles is a major failure in the purpose of the internet, and specifically the world wide web. Remember, the WWW was created to provide easy access to scholarly information for physicists. All other uses of the web are simply add-ons to this primary purpose.

Because this is why the internet exists, it is completely unreasonable that there are any non-open access physics and computer science journals after, say, 1995. I can see other fields being a little late to adapt, so I’ll give them a grace period—until 2000 or so. This is 2012. It is silly that there are still non-open access journals. I can see a hybrid system working where there is a six-month—maybe even a two-year—embargo on open access. But the current situation is crazy.

In addition to the necessity of open access in research, it is also needed for being informed. Science stories in the news are often inaccurate. What a paper in a scientific journal says is frequently totally different from the story reported. News stories are often based on a press release by the university where the research was conducted. But the press releases are written by someone whose job is promoting the university, and often do not accurately represent what the paper itself says. The inaccurate press release is then rewritten as a news story by someone without a background in science. Because much of science reporting is so poor, I like to at least skim the original journal article referred to in major stories to make sure that it actually says what the story claims. The lack of open access journals severely limits this important fact-checking.

Papers behind a pay-wall may as well not exist.

While the importance of open access is fresh in your mind, sign this petition to the President.

A few days after I posted this, a several headlines provided an excellent case study showing why open access is so important.