This post was originally published on the PLoS Student Blog on Oct. 29, 2013.
I am interested in copyright law, and especially interested in the inefficiencies and loopholes that have developed in a majority of creative industries as they have undergone the shift from analog to digital formats. Issues were made evident in front page lawsuits between the RIAA and peer to peer file sharing sites in the music industry, and big cases with Google and Amazon in the digital book industry. But what about in scientific literature?
When I began my undergraduate career at UC Berkeley and tried to familiarize myself with the functioning of the world of academia, and one things that I could not wrap my head around was fact that academics, researchers, and scientists have to assign the rights of their published works to their publisher, yet there are certain funding mandates like the National Institute of Health Public Access Mandate that require you to make your research available to the public (after giving away your copyright), and unlike other copyright-related industries, academics are not making their primary revenue from these copyrights in the first place. I then spent the following year researching how commercial publishers are affected by the federal NIH Public Access mandate , which since 2008 requires all NIH-funded research (largest body of scientific and biomedical research) to be published on the Pub Med database within one year of publication.
Open Access Initiative
It wasn’t until last semester that I met Rodrigo at one of the Berkeley Student Co-ops, the first other undergraduate that was just as passionate in advocating for open access as I was, and along with Tony and Mitar, all of whom are together working together on a collaborative, cloud-based scientific paper reader called PeerLibrary , began organizing for what informally became the UC Berkeley The Open Access Initiative . Last semester, most of our efforts went towards writing letters, informing students and faculty on campus about open access, and making an online petition that got over 1,700 signatures in order to garner support to pass a UC system-wide open access policy , which was finally passed on July 24th and requires that by default , all University of California faculty have their published works deposited in the eScholarship digital repository.
Since then, we have continued our efforts in promoting the knowledge and support of open access on campus and in the global sphere, and kicked off the 2013 international Open Access Week with an event at the UC Berkeley School of Information called “So You Want to Publish Open Access?” , which featured School of Information and Law professor Pamela Samuelson, and Biology Professor and eLife Editor-in-Chief Randy Schekman, who received a Nobel Prize just two weeks prior to the event.
So why do I care about open access, and why do I want other students to care about open access?
* For the sake of utility. The utility costs to publish in digital format are exponentially cheaper than physical printing, and is non-exclusive, meaning that one person having a copy does not impede on someone else also having a copy. In addition, the peer-review system for most scholarly publishing is done by scientists and scholars for free. Analysts estimate profit margins at 20–30% for the industry, so the average cost to the publisher of producing an article is likely to be around $3,500–4,000; a number that is far from the millions of dollars that commercial publishers are charging per year to access their journals
* For social good. If getting the articles that I want to access is difficult in Berkeley, California, imagine developing countries that having nothing close to the budget we spend annually to access the research necessary not only to make scientific progress, but to learn about prevalent and sometimes deathly medical issues that should not be limited by something as ludicrous as a journal publishers’ pay wall. The issue of accessing information is twofold: on the one hand being unable to afford subscriptions to journals, and on the other the inability to national research into the global knowledge pool.
* For my own, narcissistic sake. As a reference, I have run into about three pay walls while searching for articles to link and reference to this post, and I enter my Berkeley student ID to access articles at least once daily. Upon my graduation in two months, these articles will no longer be available to me unless I pay a fee to purchase them (before even knowing for certain if that is the article I am looking for).
These three things are just the beginning of why open access is necessary, but these are the things that as an eighteen year old getting pushed into the complex and bureaucratic academic setting, made sense even before fully understanding how the system worked.
In the Future
These top-down policies are great milestones in making open access more readily known, discussed, and practiced, but the real issue lies in the academic system itself, in which institutions continue to hire, fund and give tenure to academics and scientists largely based on where they have published. What really needs to happen is a bottom-up approach in which scientists, researchers, and academics take control of their own works, and are held accountable for making them open access.
But like changing the meta structure of any system, this is not simple, and will not happen over night. For the time being, I think that is important that people know about open access and are provided with resources to learn about how to make it happen.
And most importantly, we need to start with educating our peers at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so that making the decision of publishing open access is not a question for our future scientists and scholars. I don’t want there to have to be an open access initiative, I want open access to be the norm.
Angelica Tavella is a senior at University of California Berkeley studying “The Implications of Copyright Law in a Digital Society”. She is a co-founder of the Open Access Initiative, currently teaches a course at UC Berkeley titled The Politics of Digital Piracy, and works in IT at the Wikimedia Foundation. Her biggest passion however, is playing music. After graduation she plans to record an album and then pursue a Master’s degree in computer science.