Alexandra Elbakyan is in hiding, possibly in Russia. Elsevier, the publishing giant, have filed a legal case against her for sharing millions of academic journal papers on the internet. Her actions are a protest against the paywalls that so many scholarly articles are hidden behind.
If you work in a research environment, these paywalls are all too common in your daily work. When looking for journal articles about international development sanitation earlier this week, I was dismayed to discover that the vast majority were locked away behind pay walls. Having working in research for a number of years, I am familiar with the frustration of finding what looks from the abstract like it might be exactly the paper you have been searching for, only to discover that to access the full text you will need to fork out an extortionate sum because it is published in a journal that your institution does not have a subscription for.
When you are working at a high-level research institute, the response tends to be to sigh and move onto the next likely looking paper in a journal that you do have access to or to ask your supervisor to pay for the article. However, if you are working in an LMIC without the significant funds to cover the costs of several journal subscriptions, that information is suddenly completely inaccessible. Knowledge is power and the gold standard when it comes to scientific research is the evidence-based, peer-reviewed journal article. In the field of international development, the idea that this knowledge is inaccessible in the places that most need it and are best placed to make use of it seems laughable.
In many situations, this is research that has been funded from the public purse and yet the results are not accessible to the very same public who funded it. This lack of communication and limitation of the number of people who can access research results slows the advancement of science and the reduces the ability for large-scale data analysis. There have been some attempts to move towards a more open access system. Some of the large publishing companies are giving free access to certain poorer countries and private funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are starting to include open publication of results as a condition of their funding grants.
The major challenge with moving to an open access system is that currently scientists are judged on the papers that they publish and the journals that they publish in. The most prestigious journals are invariably not open access and so if the option arises to publish in Nature or an open access journal, the overwhelming majority of scientists will put aside their belief in the need for an open access system and take the acclaim that comes from publishing in such a well-respected journal.
Protests such as Alexandra Elbakyan’s may be unlawful but they certainly shine a spotlight on the issue. It is a slow process, but the academic world appears to be gradually moving towards open access. However, to complete that process is going to require a massive change in the attitudes of top-level researchers across the world.