Open access publishing could end academic elitism in science

Illustration of a research journal wrapped in chains, inaccessible to students and other researchers
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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In efforts to advance our increasingly datafied and technology-driven world, we have created an unusual paradox: Knowledge is now easier than ever to be disseminated, yet disadvantaged communities are systematically denied access to it.

Predominantly in the research industry, public users are frequently met with paywalls when trying to access journal articles under the subscription business model. This standard model of access to research only furthers the knowledge gap between top-tier institutions and underserved groups.

This form of academic gatekeeping, especially present in higher education, results from the monetization of published information. Since universities are uniquely positioned as a major source of funding for and as powerhouses that churn out research, we as students at UC Berkeley are directly involved in the commercialization of knowledge. And as our university is a dominant force in scientific research, this topic is most relevant to us in a scientific context.

The privatization of academic publishing has perpetuated social inequality by historically deterring disadvantaged universities from accessing scientific journals. The open access movement is fighting to make research accessible by removing the emphasis on purchasing power and making information free and transparent, thus encouraging individuals to learn from and engage in scientific research.

Publishing companies have manipulated the traditional framework of science to turn publishing into a lucrative business. One of the first methods of scientific publishing, originally developed in the 17th century, featured research from scientific academies funded by wealthy patrons. Through these academies, scientists could pursue research and share their findings for free, with publishers making little profit. The current structure has replaced academies with universities and patrons with the government, effectively transforming journals from vehicles for circulating scientific findings to symbols of power.

Elsevier, one of the leading academic publishers today, is a prime example of the influence journals hold. In 2010, its scientific publishing branch reported profits of almost $1 billion and profit margins of 36%, higher than the ones Apple, Google and Amazon posted that year. The irony here is undeniable: Higher education pays for the very information its researchers produce, usually at a much higher price than what researchers are salaried.

With such statistics readily available, what, then, sustains the extortion syndicate that is academic publishing? Universities seek hold of publications on an extensive range of subject matters that largely only high-ranking academic publishers provide. With publishing companies monopolizing this coveted information, universities have no choice but to pay exorbitant prices for their students and faculty to have access to this research.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, journal authors are often not paid for their contributions. Rather, the prestige of particular academic journals is mainly what incentivizes researchers to hand over the copyrights to academic publishers. This phenomenon is especially true for scientific journals.

Campus’s own Michael Eisen, adjunct professor of genetics, genomics and development in UC Berkeley’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, has vocalized his disapproval of for-profit publishing for years. Eisen is also a co-founder of Public Library of Science, a nonprofit, open access science, technology and medicine publishing platform. He has pointed out the absurdity of subscription-based publishing: While peer review is generally conducted for free, academic publishers charge billions of dollars each year for research that is read by scientists.  

This pattern of exploiting scientists preserves institutional bureaucracy, and scholars name-checking other scholars and writing for and building off of other scholars’ work feeds into the elitist sentiment central to academic research. 

At the forefront of breaking this exclusivist mentality of academia is the open access movement. While academic publishing is an industry that commodifies knowledge, open access publishing removes financial barriers and provides for unrestricted distribution of information. Community-based approaches to open-source software — or software whose source code is publically available — and open publishing have allowed greater accessibility to scholarly literature and increased collaboration among people from different disciplines and with various levels of expertise.

Accelerating open access publishing would inform greater audiences and promote global scholarship, in turn fostering scientific progress, creating a more robust scientific method and developing innovative thinking.

The overarching theme of the open access movement is more than just equal opportunity — it is a means of empowerment for those who have been left out of closed academic circles to take their education into their own hands. 

While the UC system is currently fighting for research written by UC-affiliated authors to be accessible for free to the public, the fight does not end there. It is a privilege to have scholarly resources at our disposal, and we must advocate for all research to be automatically published open access.

As many of us budding scientists graduate and proceed into the world of academia, it is our responsibility to uphold the principles of the open access movement and make access to scientific information, a luxury many of us are accustomed to, a right for all. When faced with the choice of publishing open access or in subscription-based journals, we must choose the former, as it is the morally right and equitable approach.

Anjali Vadhri is a senior at UC Berkeley studying molecular and cell biology.