A New Opening of Science. The Struggle for Access to Knowledge Goes On

A scientist asks questions, looks for solutions, studies similar cases, develops theories, strays, develops tools, conducts experiments, and repeats them many times. Other specialists verify their research. Eventually, after months, and sometimes years of work, they find an appropriate journal and publish results that shed new light on a problem. What is next? The publisher hides everything behind the so-called paywall, reaching several hundred zlotys for a single article. The consequence of the difficult access to knowledge is the ongoing institutional and guerrilla war for the opening up of science.

Are the Results of Research a Public Good?

Regardless of the field of research, the most fundamental goal of science is to explain reality. Science constantly asks and tries to answer the questions asked earlier, so that with each answer we increase our knowledge of the world around us, of ourselves, or the creations of our cultures.

Often, the problems analyzed by researchers grow directly from the present, so they affect our everyday lives to varying degrees. When one takes such a point of view, open access to scientific communication turns out to be in the public, not merely in the academic interest.

It is difficult to treat knowledge as a pure private good, because it also has the characteristics of a public good, for example, the possibility of using a given resource of knowledge by different people at the same time

– argues Ewa Gruszewska, an economist from the University of Białystok.

As a society that finances independent research, we should have the right to universal and easy access to their results, i.e. expert works that explain various aspects of our everyday and non-everyday life.

How, then, to reach the source, that is, a peer-reviewed scientific publication, which appeared in a high-ranking specialist periodical? There are two options. In the first case, if the publication was placed in a journal applying the open access policy, i.e. free access, then after searching for a given topic on the internet, one click is enough to receive reliable data on a selected topic.

In the second case, the reader is required either to purchase a specific article or to subscribe to the journal temporarily. For example, in Elsevier, one of the largest publishing corporations, annual access to a single scientific periodical costs from several thousand to even tens of thousands of euros. Therefore, only universities and academic libraries can afford meticulously selected subscriptions.

A pensive woman in front of a computer without access to information
Photo: Pexels / Andrea Piacquadio

The Importance of Access to Knowledge

The tools and skills necessary to verify facts seem to be key attributes of modern man. We found out about it on social media. Their algorithms favor easy and controversial content, which directly influences the easier spread of conspiracy theories and false information placed on the web by humans or bots.

How is a journalist or publicist, for example, supposed to efficiently recognize false and manipulated data presented by anti-vaccinationists if thousands of studies by vaccinologists or epidemiologists are hidden behind an extremely high paywall? It is much easier to find materials advising against vaccination – they are short, transparent, and, above all, available online immediately.

Movements for open science have been active since the early days of the internet. But it was only the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that made many unconvinced scientists and institutions realize how important universal access to scientific communication is in today’s globalized world.

Making various analyses and research data related to coronavirus available around the world has significantly improved the flow of knowledge between scientists, but also media, and interested people outside the academy.

The unprecedented opening of research during the pandemic has shown that open access policy can help solve other global problems faced by humanity. The aftermath of this awareness was the launch of the Open Climate Campaign project in 2022. It aims to encourage scientists, national governments and institutions to disseminate research on global warming. To better understand the nature of change and effectively seek solutions to the environmental crisis.

Although the existence of climate change and the resulting biodiversity decline is certain, knowledge and data on these global challenges, as well as possible solutions, actions mitigating the threats and allowing to cope with them are too often not publicly available

– states Iryna Kuchma in an interview with the Otwarta Nauka (Open Science) portal.

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Institutional and Guerrilla Struggle

The huge subscription fees charged by publishing concerns and research data managing companies are not passed on in any way to the authors of articles or reviewers of these works. They do not receive remuneration for their publications from the publisher. In turn, academies are forced to buy access to the research results, which they carried out from their budget, i.e. public money.

As a result, corporations selling the knowledge developed by others can boast of record profits. In 2018, the aforementioned Elsevier company declared revenue of US$ 3.2 billion. As Brian Resnick and Julia Belluz note, Elsevier’s profit margin doubled Netflix’s net profit over the same period. 2018 was not an exceptional year. Since then, both revenues and profits of the publishing concern have grown steadily reaching from 3 to 6% a year.

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Unlocking science… Two dominant strategies

These elements are increasingly giving rise to opposition, including of an ethical nature, directed from academic circles. The movements that seek to open up science adopt two dominant strategies. The first is systemic and institutional. Currently, most large agencies supporting research in the form of grants require the publication of the results for free access.

The researcher in the course of the project has to make the results of his studies and data available, even if in open academic repositories. This is the policy adopted by the European Commission, and in Poland by the National Science Center, among others.

The second strategy for opening up science has the character of a grassroots or even guerrilla struggle. Its face invariably remains Aleksandra Ełbakian, a researcher living in Kazakhstan and the creator of the Sci-Hub platform.

Ełbakian, accused by some part of the environment of piracy, uses individual subscription passwords, but voluntarily shared by hundreds of scientists from around the world, to open articles hidden behind a paywall thanks to them. Passwords remain secret and the whole process is automated and independent of where the recipient is trying to connect from.

Regardless of the path chosen, opening up science is today as important as the development of individual disciplines themselves. The open access policy facilitates the flow of information, affects the reliable production of knowledge, and improves data verification. It also links with the democratization of science by placing importance on cooperation between academics and society. But above all, in times of global problems, wide access to knowledge is the only ethical solution.

Translation: Marcin Brański

Polish version: Nauka ukrywana za paywallem. Trwa walka o jawność badań naukowych

Published by

Piotr F. Piekutowski


A literary scholar affiliated with the University of Silesia, where he conducts research in econarratology. He also occasionally works as a writer, screenwriter, and copywriter. Each day, he balances his time between his books and an urban apiary, where he tends to hundreds of thousands of bees.

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