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Access for all


I recently had to immerse myself in scientific publications for my graduation: I needed to find a crucial paper about the ageing process in bone marrow. Literally every single book on biology and every modern study on bone marrow cites this piece as the de facto authority in the field, but the complete text was nevertheless nowhere to be found. It was published way back in the sixties, in an obscure journal to which both TU/e and Radboud University don't subscribe. I eventually had to download the article illegally from sci-hub.tw.

Sci-hub is a website that provides access to copies of millions of research papers, in protest against the process of scientific publication with its deeply ingrained paywall. This way, it wants to champion open access: a new system wherein the author pays the publishing costs instead of the reader.

The arguments in favor of open access are practically self-explanatory. Knowledge should be freely available to everyone. Scientists can’t do their work when the studies that define their field are locked in a vault they can’t open. Now more than ever - in a time when their work is at the bleeding edge of developments to the extent that scientists share and comment on everything live via Twitter - the need for freely accessible, peer reviewed information is urgent.

The scientific community seems well on its way to a complete realization of open access. Just last month, Cursor reported that Dutch universities and Elsevier reached an agreement that allows researchers to publish open access articles in 95 percent of Elsevier’s journals. In addition, a European consortium of research agencies and funders operating under the name ‘Plan S’ is busy lobbying for open access. This plan requires all scientists and researchers who benefit from state-funded research organizations and institutions to publish their work in open access journals.

Still, there are still many disputes over the practical realization of open access, judging from the open letter against Plan S (signed by over fifteen hundred scientists, amongst others) and the heated debates in Helix last year. Researchers fear they might lose their freedom of choice. What if they have a preference for a non-open access journal? What if there is no open access journal in their field to begin with? Naturally, publishers complain as well: they do the world a favor by switching to open access, but that doesn’t mean that their competitors will do the same. This weakens their market position

In my view, the process towards complete open access will be a long and difficult one. Until everyone - scientists, publishers and research funders - is fully on board, parties will be able to dig their heels in and say that the other side won’t cooperate. A kind of endless ‘you first.’ As long as that game continues, websites like Sci-hub will remain a necessity.

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