You work hard.
You get taxed, and some of this tax finances important cancer research.
You click online to check up a few cancer research facts you heard.
You are blocked access unless you pay £22 per article or a £135 subscription.
You feel mad, poor, relegated and marginalised from 'the science community': lose interest.
Knowledge is power. It is reserved for the rich and privileged, not the poor and disadvantaged. This is the message academic journals shout out, clearly and loudly, every time they are clicked. It would take a single mum, working a backshift in Asda for £6.70 an hour before tax, half a day's labour to access just one science article on a topic that interests her. As a researcher with free access, it often takes me 5-6 articles before I manage an informed opinion on a matter. The majority of the UK population cannot afford to know about topics independently. The mutilated alternative is to be spoon fed pre-digested research by the press and media outlets, spat at you with distorted bias for a commercial agenda.
I reject entirely the notion we are a classless modern society 'in it together'. Our cobbled collation of nations is torn and divided by wealth and living inequality. Those who reject this statement probably fall on the comfortable side of that divide. The people who state we have a good system are invariably the same people for whom the system benefits. It is easy for common people to give up and become apathetic, listen to others inured to a broken system.
"It's just the way it is; you can't change the world."
You can. One inspiring Kazakh woman is. Alexandra Elbakyan decided these paywalls on academic knowledge are intolerable and unjust. So she set up a website called 'SciHub' in 2011, where students and academics with privileged access to research articles can download them to SciHub via a proxy intermediary server (a little bit like Wikileaks). Once downloaded anybody can access them for free. It was a tiny page back then, but now has over 48million academic articles. That single mother working in Asda can now read good raw science on the illness her mother has, or understand the complexities about climate change.
SciHub was sued for copyright infringement (of course), by the Journal publisher Elsevier. It survived, but is struggling to exist in a hostile climate, and needs public support. Elsevier, incidentally, took a 37% profit on over £2 billion in 2014. But surely these companies need to defend their products from being stolen, and given away for free?
No. Academics are not paid by journals when they submit research for publication. Peer reviewing an author's work by other academics is also already a service done for free. Further, printed journals are a redundant relic of the past; online, interactive Pdf files are the future. So running costs aren't as onerous as might initially be suspected; editing, proofreading, web maintenance etc. Then come ethics. If the research is funded by the public initially, they should not be required to pay again (with profit to a private company) in order to access the published results.
SciHub is a pirate I love. Alexandra, a Robin Hood deserving a medal (though not a Nobel one, as those are reserved for those who start wars it seems). But it saddens me that pirates and robbers are needed in order for regular everyday folk to have access to reliable cutting edge information. We need a new system. Now. There are no excuses. So what can be done?
First, make access to published research free, for everybody.
Second, make academic journals not-for-profit charities, so the only costs are overheads.
Third, transfer the burden of overhead cost off individuals and onto institutions.
Universities currently pay huge sums to journal publishers to gain free access to academic literature for their students. If the whole system became non-profit, then university journal expenditure could remain unchanged despite the lower costs involved: but freedom of access extended to all, not just students. There are numerous alternative financial configurations that could also work.
In a world experiencing dangerous climate change, geopolitical wars of economic resource, diminishing traditional fuels combined with large scale financial instability, we need a general public who can think beyond the daily rag columns and parrot-like news networks. It matters so much to engage the public with science and learning. Not to preach at them in a unidirectional flow, but to empower them, providing tools to enable independent critical investigation in their learning meanderings.
In the UK, one institution stands alone in providing mass public access to high end data. This is the Open University. You may be unaware, but signing up for even a small 10 credit part time course gains you access to all the academic articles from every major publisher in the world. The important role the Open University plays in allowing disadvantaged and working classes a ladder into the cloistered upper echelons of society cannot be stated enough.
We need more models like the Open University.
We need systemic change at the corporate and governmental level regarding research access. We need national conversations extending beyond rich white men talking to other rich white men in gilded halls of power and wealth. We need this change now.
Yet if the privileged minority at the top fail to change knowledge access for all, perhaps it is only fair that grass root individuals steal data and trespass their way... up.
Adrienne Macartney runs the public engagement project 'Science Hooker', and is a final year PhD student at the University of Glasgow where she studies the loss of the early atmosphere of Mars, and what lessons this loss might provide for tackling climate change.