By Zal Dholoo, October 27 2023—
In the age of the internet, the ability to share and post information has never been easier. The internet has allowed us to accumulate and share the largest database of information, both dubious and rigorously reviewed, in human history.
Yet the highest quality information, the studies that are most relevant, well-researched and scientific, are all too often locked behind a myriad of subscriptions. Though pervasive throughout the internet, the axiom of open access is noticeably absent in scientific journals. It is not an issue of complexity that prevents affordable centralized access to a database of scientific papers, but an issue of will.
Though those enrolled in university have access to these articles, enrollment does not give anybody the right to knowledge — it simply gives people an opportunity to spend time learning. The cost of both time and money in university can be prohibitive for many, the vast array of knowledge that exists should not be contingent on enrollment. Why should this repository of information funded mostly by the government, be gatekept by journals?
The internet is a vast resource for those who are unable to access proper education, but it could also be a resource for cutting-edge research. It does not seem right to force a curious individual who, for example, has recently been diagnosed with a lifelong condition to pay once again to understand their illness.
Perhaps the argument of iniquity is not concrete enough. Perhaps it is simply another injustice in an unjust world, but the issue of access to science has real-world significance. Coronavirus misinformation and fear-mongering had lasting and measurable costs, in both life and the trust in the very institution of science itself.
To the average university student or alumnus, who is well-educated and is more likely to interact day-to-day with science, questioning the validity of science as an institution may seem like an injudicious application of skepticism. But conspiratorial questioning comes from the same root cause as science; a fundamental curiosity about the world. There is surely a subset of conspiracy theorists and science deniers that would have been so regardless of circumstance, but there are too many that are so because of the relative convenience of unscientific sources.
I worry that many science deniers were search results away from being scientists. Had the right result shown up on a search, with compelling evidence, clear language, and a well-sourced bibliography, they might have continued to hold the institution of science in as high a regard as it ought to be. Maybe if anti-vaxxers initially searching for information about the latest vaccine scare had been directed to a resource designed for science communication, words like meta-analysis and literature review might have become part of our lexicon. The issue is that no one who is searching for vaccine information can access the actual repository of science, because there are always paywalls. Instead, the job of science communication falls to journalists or online pundits. These people either lack the expertise or motivation to truly understand the science — thus you have the blind leading the blind in a room full of light.
Journals tend to be prohibitively expensive because their business model is directed at career specialists. A potential solution is offering a secondary cheaper subscription model which allows 10 articles in a subject area to be read. This would allow individuals with an amateur’s research experience to be able to explore the topic without committing to a variety of subscriptions. While journals should be able to profit off an article for some amount of time, the article should become part of the public domain while it is still somewhat relevant, not the current 70 years after the author’s death.
It seems like the apparatus of science has taken a step back when it comes to opening up the process of scientific inquiry to the public. The response to the anti-science sentiment was to have greater policing of the acceptable views of scientists and medical practitioners. Science is not doctors, scientists or pharmacologists, but rather the knowledge they produce. Their work is meant to be consumed and understood, not hidden and paid for.
This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.