Open-Access Science Publishing: Good for Journalists, and Good for Public

January 16, 2013

One big obstacle facing environmental journalists is the difficulty of access to published scientific studies that bear on the key policy issues of the day — and the emerging issues of tomorrow. A brilliant young activist named Aaron Swartz died this month trying to change this.

Some science journals are available free to anyone online. But many more are not — so a journalist who needs an article must find a research library, get library privileges, and find a copy machine — or pay a fee his or her editor may have no budget for.

Science does little good if nobody knows about it; in fact, the sharing of information is one key to good science. More importantly, it is a key to good journalism and good public policy.

Swartz, one of the inventors of the RSS feed standard and a co-founder of Reddit, killed himself January 11 as he faced federal data-crime charges that could have put him in prison for over 30 years. His alleged crime: downloading academic journal articles.

Swartz had been charged with hacking MIT's computer network to download many articles from JSTOR — a system set up to manage both paid and free access to some scientific and academic journals.

In the last several years, "Open Access" has become both a buzzword and a movement, as academics themselves have begun struggling against increasing commercialism in academic publishing.

The Society of Environmental Journalists in February 2009 took an official position in favor of free public access to tax-funded research.

But the battleground today is research that may not have been federally funded. For academic publishing to function, someone must pay the costs of reviewing, editing, and publishing articles. Historically, journals were often subsidized by universities which reaped a reward in prestige. Today, an increasing number of those journals have been bought up by large commercial publishing companies like Elsevier, who are out to make profits.

It is not about protecting the intellectual property of the researchers. Researchers themselves rarely get direct financial rewards for articles they publish — in fact, they often must pay fees to publish them.