Vote for Me, Marry Me, but Don’t Read the Research I Published

With all of the recent media attention on equality lately (gay marriage, hell yeah!), I realize that not everyone is as excited as I am about the state of affairs in our country at the moment. Luckily for those people, we are gathered here today not to discuss whether we should all be allowed to marry one another, but rather to talk about something a little less sensitive: information.

Now I know what you’re thinking: am I really trying to transition from same-sex marriage to information? Yep, just trust me here.

So here’s the deal.

I think we can all agree here that knowledge is a basic human right, yeah? (If you answered no to that question, we can talk later, but for now just pretend you said yes.) So why in the world would we discover a whole bunch of crazy cool stuff and then publish it in a journal where it costs an arm and a leg to access unless you’re in college or employed by one? Well, I’m not sure either. In fact, I think it’s pretty stupid.

We’ve got sites like Wikipedia where anyone who wants to can share information about pretty much anything, but if you’ve ever taken a peek at the reference lists for some of those articles, you already know what I’m about to point out. For those of you who don’t know, there’s one pretty big problem with the way this works: the average person doesn’t have access to the majority of those sources, so if you want to see where the information on Wikipedia came from, you’re going to have to pay up.

How can we fix this?

Open access is the first thing that comes to mind. People have been fighting for open access for years, though, and that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. There’s just too much money in the information business (yeah, it’s a business — I guess if you can sell air and water then you can sell information, too) for anyone to give it up that easily. Plus, the average person might have a difficult time even deciphering many of the articles that get published in scholarly journals, as they tend to be fairly sophisticated and even verbose.

What if researchers had websites where they offered shortened or simplified versions of their work that anyone could access? They could give a description of their work and talk about it in layman’s terms — not dumb-ing it down, just making it simpler — and even provide a link to a free copy of the full text of the article. I understand that this is basically open access, but at least this way not everyone has to participate — people who are still behind the times can stay there if they so choose.

In a perfect world, a law would be passed preventing journals from requiring that access to the articles they publish be paid for; that way, authors who want their work to be openly accessed can make it so, and those who don’t simply don’t have to worry about it. Open access journals do exist, but the most prominent journals still require subscription fees, so, unfortunately, authors must choose between open access and publishing in a well-known journal.

There is no easy or correct solution to this problem. All I know for sure is that in no way is it fair that access to so much information is so limited. Here I have offered a solution that, while it seems simple enough, would require a lot of fighting and pushing to achieve — though perhaps it could be the first step toward eventual complete open access.

Here’s the thing about all of this, though: a hundred years ago, women couldn’t even vote. Now, we’re running for office and marrying each other; if you ask me, that’s some damn good progress, even if it did take almost a century to get here. Great job, America. Seriously.

But let me leave you with this question: if I can vote for you, run for election to be your leader, and marry another woman if I want, then shouldn’t I be allowed to read the research paper you published?

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