To tackle the ongoing catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic, the biomedical research community must deploy all the tools at its disposal, especially the extensive networks of international communication and collaboration that fuel scientific discovery. Unfortunately, we are hamstrung in our use of one of our most essential tools: open access to the vast repositories of accumulated knowledge contained in the published scientific literature.
Restricting access to this resource, which can help scientists find tests, treatments, and even cures for Covid-19, is shortsighted and unethical, with tangible impacts on human life.
Shockingly, a large fraction of the world’s scientific knowledge — most of which is produced by taxpayer-funded research programs — is locked behind paywalls of private publishers that continue to argue for “embargo periods” and closed archives to maximize their control over access to research and their ability to profit from this control. Under this system, research papers are sequestered for a period of time behind paywalls, ensuring that only paying subscribers can read them. This embargo period can range from months to years, and in some cases effectively lasts forever.
Tuesday marks a long-awaited breakthrough, as Springer Nature, one of the world’s most important scientific publishers, seals a transformative agreement with the 10-campus University of California (UC) system. Under this agreement, everyone in the world will have free and open access to all UC research published in more than 2,700 of Springer Nature’s journals, and all UC students, faculty, and researchers will gain access to more than 1,000 journals to which the system did not previously subscribe.
Not all steps toward open access to the scientific literature have been successful. Since a breakdown in negotiations between universities and the publishing giant Elsevier over subscription prices and freer access, large sectors of the biomedical research community, including the entire UC system, have been denied access to vital research results contained in hundreds of scientific journals owned by that company. MIT announced last week that, after reaching a similar impasse, it had called off its own negotiations with Elsevier over open access. Elsevier, it must be noted, enjoys steady profit margins in the range of 37 percent.
Government science advisors and other public advocates recently convinced some publishers to make some Covid-19-related content freely available, but this is not enough. The next breakthrough in the pandemic may well come from work not originally recognized as being related to Covid-19, and a vast amount of this scientific research remains locked away. This includes work on serum testing, viral replication, understanding coronavirus life cycles, and much more.
The Covid-19 crisis merely highlights an acute form of a more chronic and systemic problem. Scientific research has a fundamental role in finding solutions to many of the pressing problems facing the world today, from cancer to climate change, and progress on all these fronts is slowed when access to the latest research, as well as archives, is unnecessarily restricted.
On behalf of more than 100 active biomedical researchers, we urge the scientific publishing industry to open its store of scientific knowledge — which the research community has entrusted to it — and make this knowledge available to the world. If not, the governments that funded this work should declare eminent domain over these materials and demand immediate, unimpeded access. It would be the ethical thing to do.
Peter Walter is professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. R. Dyche Mullins is professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California at San Francisco and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.