Open access research provides an opportunity for the public to learn and use data as needed for free, but it is not overwhelmingly common. For researchers outside of academia, trying to pull together useful data can be difficult when considering accessibility barriers.
About two months ago, I began looking for data to create a model of biological inputs and energy requirements in the United States food system. Open data resources such as FAOSTAT, the Economic Research Service, and Bureau of Transportation Statistics provided helpful figures on land use, food imports, and food transportation values. Aside from these resources, a lot of information I wanted to reference in building a model came from scientific papers that require journal subscriptions or charge a per-article fee.
Three articles that may have been helpful in my research illustrate the cost of access:
- ‘Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health’ by David Tilman and Michael Clark published in Nature costs $8.99 to rent for 48 hours, $22 for cloud access, or $32 to buy.
- ‘Quantification of Food Waste Disposal in the United States: A Meta-Analysis’ by Krista L. Thyberg, David J. Tonjes, and Jessica Gurevitch published in Environmental Science and Technology requires a American Chemical Society membership which is $171 for a regular or non-scientist affiliate subscription.
- ‘Domestic food practices: A study of food management behaviors and the role of food preparation planning in reducing waste’ by Simona Romani, Silvia Grappi, Richard P. Bagozzi, and Ada Maria Barone published in Appetite costs $35.95 on ScienceDirect.
Upon closer investigation, Appetite claims it ‘supports open access’ but charges authors $3000 to make articles available to everyone, according to publisher Elsevier. Clearly, providing affordable open access options doesn’t seem like a priority for publishers.
There may have been useful data in the articles mentioned above. However, I won’t find out because I’m sticking with open access resources for my food systems project.
Public government databases are great, but specific science studies may hold more value to independent researchers. Journals like PLOS ONE lead the way in open access articles for those looking for specific research to compliment information from public databases. A 2016 article by Paul Basken in The Chronicle of Higher Education called ‘As an Open-Access Megajournal Cedes Some Ground, a Movement Gathers Steam’ shows a rise in open access papers, but I got the figures via Boston College because the article itself is ‘premium content for subscribers.’
Charging fees for accessibility can create an elitist barrier between academia and those who want to learn more about certain topics. I’m not proposing that everyone would take advantage of open access research articles if there were cheaper publishing options, or no access fees. If more studies were open access, it would create more opportunities for members of the public to digest scientific studies on their own terms.
There’s immense value in the open-source, collaborative culture of the tech community that I hope spills over into academia. I’m optimistic about a continued increase in open access publications in the science community. For now, I’m looking forward to creating open source projects that take advantage of public data.