Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go
A guest post by student scientist Jack Andraka
After a close family friend died from pancreatic cancer, I turned to the Internet to help me understand more about this disease that had killed him so quickly. I was 14 and didn’t even know I had a pancreas but I soon educated myself about what it was and started learning about how it was diagnosed. I was shocked to discover that the current way of detecting pancreatic cancer was older than my dad and wasn’t very sensitive or accurate. I figured there had to be a better way!
I soon learned that many of the papers I was interested in reading were hidden behind expensive pay walls. I convinced my mom to use her credit card for a few but was discouraged when some of them turned out to be expensive but not useful to me. She became much less willing to pay when she found some in the recycle bin! One of the best journal articles was called Carbon Nanotubes: the route towards applications.
This was the [paywall to the] article I smuggled into biology class the day my teacher was explaining antibodies and how they worked. I was not able to access very many more articles directly. I was 14 and didn’t drive and it seemed impossible to go to a University and request access to journals.
Some adults have told me I should have done that but, as a 14 year old, it was intimidating. It was also hard to get my parents to drive me to a University library since they didn’t really believe in my project and were trying to convince me to change projects! So there are a lot of barriers for kids to learn more and educate themselves. Open access would help people like me who may not drive or have access to a University library.
Luckily I was able to convince my mom to finance some more articles I needed and I learned to try different ways of circumventing the pay walls. I emailed one author with some questions though and he was able to provide me with a copy. Writing authors directly is a good way to get articles without paying but I didn’t figure this out right away.
I was persistent enough to be able to get access or at least the abstracts to enough journals to help me write my proposal which I then used the Internet to find and email over 200 local professors who were working on pancreatic cancer. Of course, most didn’t take me seriously or were too busy or just not interested in helping but I finally did get into a lab. Of course when I did get into a lab, then the University had access to so many articles because they subscribed to them. However, even universities are feeling that the subscriptions are expensive.
I was on a panel with Luis A. Ubiñas , head of the Ford Foundation, and heard him describe how running times at the Olympics plummeted after African countries started participating. I was thinking that if kids around the world could get connected to the internet and journals and each other, that even more creativity would be harnessed to solve the world’s problems.
Open access would be an important first step. I would love to see research that is publicly funded by taxes to be publicly available through neighborhood libraries and public school libraries.
It would make it so much easier for people like me to find the information they need. If I can create a sensor to detect cancer using the Internet, imagine what you can do.
At 15, Jack Andraka of Crownsville, MD won $75,000 in scholarship funds at the 2012 Intel Science Fair for his invention of an early ‘dip stick’ test for pancreatic cancer. Now 16 and a high school sophomore, Jack continues his research activities while serving as an advocate for STEM education and Open Access to scientific research.
Follow Jack on Twitter @jackandraka