Columnist Lee Dye: It's Time to Make Research Free

A few leading scientists are asking a simple question that could have a profound impact on how information about scientific research is disseminated. Here's the question:

Why shouldn't scientific research be available to anyone anywhere in the world, free of charge?

Even taxpayers who foot the bill for research sponsored by such institutions as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health still have to pay to see the results of that research, one way or another.

Making that data freely available to anyone is an idea that would have gotten nowhere just a few years ago. But the Internet has changed that. Free online access to those pricey professional journals in which scientists report their findings could allow a biologist in Afghanistan, or a doctor in Peru, or Joe Sixpack in California to tune in to what's going on in the world of science.

And it shouldn't cost any of those folks a nickel.

Free Research For the People

But here's the hitch. Although many scientists support the idea of free access, scientific publishing is big business, and sometimes very profitable, so understandably not all publishers are anxious to give their product away when they can charge a substantial subscription fee instead.

Why would anyone pay for something if they can get it for free? And if they can't collect from their readers, how would those important journals pay their own bills?

They can do so by completely restructuring how they do business, according to Nicholas Cozzarelli, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor in chief for seven years of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Cozzarelli put his money where his mouth is by making that journal free online, and he has managed to convince a few other journals to do the same.

But most, including the major leaguers like Science and Nature, have declined to do so.

Access to journals is important because they are as essential to the scientific process as microscopes, telescopes and powerful computers. The preferred way for a scientist to disclose his or her findings is by publishing them in a peer reviewed journal.

When a paper is submitted to the journal, it is sent out to other experts in the same field for their comments. Eventually, if the paper is judged to have merit, it is published, thus sharing the research with other professionals. It's not a perfect system, because it can be influenced by professional biases and old-boy-networks, but it serves as sort of a scientific safety net. It's hard to slip really bad research through a jury of your peers, although that does happen from time to time.

Publishing in a journal means the research has withstood a major test, and the work is taken much more seriously. Many science writers, including myself, are uncomfortable writing about work that has not been peer reviewed. Knowing that competing researchers in the same field find the work of merit is reassuring, thus increasing the odds that it will be further disseminated through the lay press.

Paying to Publish

So the journals play a critical role, but many of them are so expensive that even major libraries have to limit the number of subscriptions. Journals that deal with highly specialized subjects can be especially pricey, yet indispensable to researchers.

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