Science freedom: a British proposal

Elsevier parody poster. From

A crack may finally be appearing in one of the most serious remaining barriers to equality in the developed world.

Although much has lately been made of the divisions in our societies resulting from inequalities in wealth and social status, we largely ignore perhaps the most serious of all divisions: fundamental access to our knowledge about the world and its inhabitants.

The CBC reported today that the British government has announced it will make all government-funded research available for free by 2014, a move that is being speculatively seen as prefacing a similar EU-wide initiative.

The maxim ‘Scientia potentia est’ (knowledge is power) has been variously attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and the Book of Proverbs. Regardless of whomever uttered it, the phrase has stuck, and is no less true today than it was one hundred or one thousand years ago.

Currently, research papers are published in peer-reviewed journals, which are in turn published and distributed, usually by large publishing houses. Three of these companies, Reed Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley, are purported to have accounted for almost half of the journal articles published in 2010.

This means that half of the new knowledge produced by scientists in vital fields like physics, engineering and health & medicine is being withheld by three for-profit companies, which release the research only on payment. (A notably humane exception to this is the health sector; the Canadian Institutes for Health Research mandate that all papers originating from their funding must be publically available for free 6 months after publication.)

It is not uncommon for those without the costly annual subscriptions to be asked to pay 40$ or more for access to a single research paper, while subscriptions to some journals cost several thousand dollars annually. This obviously presents a formidable barrier to any inquisitive members of the general public looking to check facts or do their own research.

At one stage this was somewhat of a necessary evil; before the advent of the internet paper copies of journals had to be produced and distributed to libraries and universities in physical form. However, in the days of easy online publishing researchers are beginning to have a change of heart.

In 2010, in light of Elsevier reporting an annual revenue of $3.2 billion US (half of which was profit), nearly 7500 researchers worldwide, including Canadians, announced that they would no longer be publishing their work with the Dutch publishing house. Yet the Elsevier group is certainly not alone in making a buck meting out science to only those who can pay up.

It’s a strange contradiction indeed that we expect people to make informed, responsable decisions without enabling them access to the knowledge that would help them do so; the modern intellectual equivalent of Sir Fulke Greville’s lament for humanity: “Created sick, commanded to be sound”.

Can we realistically expect people to make good decisions on scientific or social policy, or even to care what science has to say at all, while denying them access to the products of that enterprise, even when they paid for the research themselves through taxes?

This is not to suggest that the accessibility of these documents will make scientific readers out of the whole population. It’s doubtless the case that media will still fill the important role of translating and interpreting the technicalities and implications of scientific work through engagement with experts. However, at least in the UK, the general readership will soon be accorded the adult consideration of being able to check for themselves if they so desire.

In his excellent book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, the well-known science populariser Carl Sagan bemoaned the overwhelming science illiteracy of young Americans as a dangerous societal failing. We Canadians should not assume we are any better off.

This price barrier between the public and science, then, is an obstruction blocking the way to real popular engagement with science, something a healthy modern nation so desperately requires. Although we do not yet know the details of, and so cannot judge, the upcoming UK access system (much less the EU-wide version), the fact that this issue is being given serious action by a government is a heartening step forward.

Although the days of true public freedom of access to journals are no doubt far-off yet, it would be a great advance for Canada to follow in the footsteps of the UK, and at least start by giving all Canadians admission to what we’re already paying for.

2 thoughts on “Science freedom: a British proposal

  1. Thanks Archi,

    I totally agree. I also think it’s against some fundamental principles of science, such as open access for scrutiny and collaboration. This exclusivity contributes to keeping science a lofty and elite domain, out of the average person’s reach.


  2. Great post, Erik.

    I will add an observation that I made working in a developing country. Many research institutions in a developing country do not have access to majority of journals becasue they simply do not have the funds to buy subscriptions. This adds to the gap between the science that will be done in a developing country versus a developed country. The system works to maintain the inequality among researchers.


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