Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024

Breaking knowledge barriers: The need for open-access in science

By SHREYA TIWARI | April 22, 2024



Tiwari argues that open-access publishing holds a myriad of benefits for both researchers and the general public. 

The internet serves as a haven of scientific information, representing an era where the knowledge of anything we wish to know is available at our fingertips. Yet in many ways, accurate, firsthand accessibility to scientific research and comprehensibility of scientific knowledge is severely limited. A substantial overhaul is needed in the way that the general populace accesses scientific knowledge.

A key part of the problem is that a significant portion of scientific literature, including journals and press releases, is hidden behind steep paywalls. The cost to access these articles can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, a price that is unaffordable for most individuals. This practice not only limits the dissemination of knowledge but also hampers the public's trust in science. For many university students, researchers and labs, larger institutions — such as universities and research centers — often bear the cost of these subscriptions, which mitigates part of the problem. However, independent researchers, younger students and the general audience interested in science are left in the dark. Access is limited to those who are part of such affluent institutions. 

The issue of paywalls creates a barrier to information that propels the general audience to find scientific information from general news sources, often directing them to less-than-reputable sources of information. But beyond acting as a barrier to information, it acts as a barrier to progress. When scientific knowledge is so inaccessible, it hinders the ability of independent researchers to build upon previous work, slowing the pace of scientific discovery. Furthermore, it prevents the public from being thoroughly informed participants in scientific discourse — their understanding of scientific issues is shaped by the biases of the news sources they read rather than their own analysis of the information.

Even when scientific articles are accessible, they are often filled with technical jargon, which, while necessary for precise communication within academia, limits the reach of scientific communication. This lack of comprehensibility leads to a reliance on secondary sources, such as news articles and social media for scientific information. These sources provide simplified explanations, but simplification can also lead to misinformation and the polarization of public opinions on topics in science that should, in an ideal world, be objective. 

When scientific findings are communicated in a language that is difficult for the average person to understand, it can create a sense of alienation and mistrust. This is particularly problematic in areas of science that have a direct impact on people's lives, such as health and environmental science. The ripple effects of this large-scale public mistrust in science have been seen in the advent of climate deniers, anti-vaxxer movements and blatant disregard of basic health and sanitation procedures. To foster public trust in science, there is a need for more transparency in scientific communication. This includes making scientific articles freely available and ensuring they are written in a way that a broader audience can understand.

Open-access publishing is the most reasonable way to resolve the cost issue — making research outputs freely available online would allow anyone to access and learn from the newest research findings. To increase language accessibility, scientists should work to make an effort to communicate research in a way that is more intelligible without a high level of knowledge about the topic. Some publications are even starting to provide open-access articles on how to interpret and understand scientific literature as it grows more complex. To further increase accessibility, figure abstracts could accompany complex papers, providing a simpler explanation of complex concepts. 

By making science more open and accessible, we can ensure that scientific knowledge is shared widely, fostering further innovation, progress and participation in the scientific method. 

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