University Research Should Be Free to All

The research landscape has changed due to COVID-19. Let’s keep it that way, Janet Napolitano writes.

July 31, 2020
 
 
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Since the novel coronavirus struck, scientific research has been shared, and built upon, at an unprecedented pace. An open and deeply collaborative academic enterprise has emerged, with scientists from around the world sharing data and working together to map the SARS-CoV-2 genome and develop the first vaccines.

During normal times -- when we’re not in a pandemic -- much of the taxpayer-funded research that universities conduct is locked away by publishers, out of reach for all but those who can afford costly subscriptions. This year, given the dire need to fight a deadly disease, publishers temporarily lifted the paywalls that normally shut out this important knowledge from public view.

University of California scholars generate nearly 10 percent of all research in the United States. But the vast majority of this work -- more than 80 percent published -- is behind paywalls due to an archaic global publishing model. Under this system, academic publishers can charge universities both to publish and to read scientific findings -- sometimes even in the very same journal. Publicly funded research remains inaccessible to the public, while publishers reap enormous profits.

Solving the world’s most pressing problems requires a vast ecosystem of sources and knowledge, built on equal access to information that is vital to the public good. UC is leading the charge in the global push to allow for that by demanding that all research, including lifesaving scientific findings, be published open access, immediately free for everyone.

Lifesaving research should always be available to all -- not only during a global health crisis. As the pandemic has demonstrated recently, our way to better therapeutics and a vaccine depends on open access to scientific research.

UC researchers have already published over 600 studies and in-depth articles related to the novel coronavirus. They include, for example, a report by a University of California, San Francisco, researcher and others on methods to protect health-care workers on the front lines and a study by a University of California, San Diego, scholar and others on the evolutionary history of the virus as it has traveled between species. The development of this critical research involved researchers collaborating from around the world -- Pakistan to Guatemala, China to South Africa.

Because these studies are currently available to everyone, researchers can immediately build on the findings to help advance their own work, and medical professionals and policy makers can make decisions informed by the best and latest data available. Access to early studies from researchers in Germany and China on how the SARS-CoV-2 virus replicates in our bodies, for example, has already allowed researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, to identify natural compounds that could intercept this process, stopping the virus in its tracks.

Making this research free to all, forever, will require a total disruption of how universities and publishers create and share information. Yet it is within our grasp to achieve. Under a landmark new deal, UC research that is published in more than 2,700 journals by one of the world’s leading publishers, Springer Nature, will be free to everyone, proving that publishers can indeed serve as valuable allies in the fight for freedom of access and knowledge for all.

Last year, UC cut ties with publishing giant Elsevier when such an agreement could not be reached. Others, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the entire State University of New York system and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have also cut Elsevier subscriptions over concerns about access and cost.

But this is just the start. Now is the time for all universities to join us in taking a stand for the public good and making a real commitment to open up our research. As we speak, the White House is considering a policy that would require federally funded research to be immediately available to the public -- not just during a global crisis. I urge academic institutions to prioritize open access to research in their contracts with scientific publishers. And I encourage taxpayers to let public universities, elected federal officials and gatekeeping publishing companies know that they rightly demand open access to the science they help fund for the greater good.

The COVID-19 crisis inspired a global collaboration that has led to a scientific renaissance -- and we must not revert to our old ways. Imagine the progress that could be made if the international research community worked together to develop treatments for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Climate change, educational equity and racial justice could all be studied through a more expansive and inclusive lens.

Years from now, we will look back at this pandemic as a historic time of incredible challenges, disruption and anguish. But I hope we will also remember it as an inflection point -- the end of restricting knowledge to a privileged few and the dawn of a new era in scientific progress.

Bio

Janet Napolitano is the president of the University of California system and a former United States secretary of homeland security.

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