Why Open Access Is a Game Changer

When research is free for everyone, as it's been during the pandemic, scientific experts of all kinds can shine light on the many facets of a health crisis, writes Britt Glaunsinger.

April 21, 2021
 
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The lightning-fast COVID-19 vaccination effort has been a major source of hope and relief during a harrowing time. And it was made possible by a revolutionary way of doing science.

During the health crisis, information has ping-ponged around the globe, quickly giving rise to important developments such as diagnostic testing and RNA-based vaccines. Underlying this massive wave of information sharing is open access: the simple but powerful idea that knowledge should be free for everyone, always.

And this month, open access scored a giant victory.

On April 1, the University of California’s breakthrough agreement with Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher, officially went into effect. Under the deal, research published in Elsevier journals by UC authors is by default free to anyone, anywhere in the world. The deal is a great leap -- and a shot in the arm, both literally and figuratively, for the battles to come. But we shouldn’t stop until all our research is available to the world.

Right now, we’re still living in COVID-19’s long shadow. Vacations, gathering with friends and going to school and college don’t look the same as they did a little more than a year ago.

The pandemic has changed my own work, too. With the rise of COVID-19, the Glaunsinger Lab joined the massive, all-hands effort to better understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease.

The genetic map, or genome, of a virus is vanishingly small, with as few as a handful of genes. (Compare that to the 20,000 or more genes a human has.) But a relatively tiny virus clearly has the power to wreak havoc within an organism.

How is this possible? That’s the fundamental question my lab has been focusing on. Because of their relative simplicity, viruses have to be resourceful -- hijacking, reprogramming or shutting down a cell’s machinery so they can proliferate. Before the pandemic, my lab researched how this process plays out in the virus that causes Kaposi’s sarcoma, the main kind of cancer in AIDS patients. But now we have taken our expertise and applied it to unraveling the mysteries of SARS-CoV-2.

With two other labs on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, we’ve been working to better understand how SARS-CoV-2 shuts down the cell’s gene expression machinery, which helps silence the alarm that tells the immune system that it’s infected. By evading detection, it’s free to run amok in our bodies, sometimes with tragic consequences.

For this research, we are relying on the work of other scientists. In many cases, that work is shared freely among researchers as preprints, or articles that have not yet been through the peer-review process. Under the traditional publishing model, it can take upward of a year and a half until an article is peer reviewed and published. And when it is made available, it’s locked behind a paywall. If we had to wait for the peer-review process to run its course, vital information about the virus would just now be seeing the light of day.

Scientific publishers have gotten in on the act, too. Recognizing the need to let knowledge fly free, they have temporarily lifted their paywalls to COVID-19 research.

With information that is both fast and free, scientists can more effectively prioritize -- focusing on the pressing questions that remain unanswered. We can draw from a pool of collective knowledge, examining and building on other scholars’ research using our own distinct sets of expertise.

Opening the floodgates to information is about equity, too. Through my institution, I can get my hands on most of the research I need. But not everyone is so lucky. Think of physicians in private practice who can’t afford hefty subscription costs to access the latest information on cancer therapies, or underresourced researchers in parts of the world that are disproportionately impacted by diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

No one scientist can be an expert in everything. But every scientist is an expert in something. When scientific research is free for everyone, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers of all kinds -- with expertise in epidemiology, immunology, public health and a host of other disciplines -- can shine light on the many facets of a health crisis. The more minds we have focused on a common challenge, the faster we can overcome it, and the better off we’ll all be.

COVID-19 is hardly the only killer on the loose. Imagine how different things would look if open access were the status quo not just during this unprecedented time, but also as we continue to fight the scourges of influenza, AIDS, cancer, heart disease and many other public health concerns.

UC’s deal with Elsevier is a monumental step. But if we want scientific discoveries to flourish, we need to push open access as far as it can go. Inspired by UC’s victory and others, universities and institutions across the world can -- and must -- stand up to publishers and strike transformative open-access deals of their own. No one person, or one institution, can do it alone: we all play a part in getting us closer to a world where open access is not the exception but the norm. The agreement with Elsevier has shown us that a large-scale shift is possible.

UC has dislodged the biggest brick in the paywall. Let’s not stop until the rest are scattered and crumble.

Bio

Britt Glaunsinger is a professor in the department of plant and microbial biology and the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

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