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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Biden Just Gifted the World Access to Science

Biden has demanded all scientific journals publishing papers with US government support provide the papers and all supplementary data for free online by 2025. This is a good thing.

A bit of background, because many of my writer friends are confused by this issue. With fiction writing, forcing all books and stories online for free would bankrupt most writers. Science is very different. Scientists apply for funds as part of grants to pay journals for the privilege of publishing. Some of those publishers are private companies, some nonprofits, some governments. In many cases, nobody can see this work unless they have privileges at a library that pays an absolute fortune to the publishers. The middlemen make a profit by making the public, teachers, and any scientists not at wealthy institutions (including much of the Global South) suffer.

The last university at which I held a full-time faculty position (Florida Gulf Coast University) was nearly denied accreditation because of its library, which at the time was crappy. They were forced to spend big time on subscribing to journals in order to not lose accreditation. With declining state funds to support higher education, that meant higher tuition for students.

Even after these purchases, while I was still on the faculty, I often had to wait more than a week to get a printout of a .pdf file of an article mailed to me in snail mail by Interlibrary Loan. The service that emailed you the .pdf file was much more expensive for the library, so they didn't buy it.

When I later moved out of academia and I needed an article, I could get it through the public library's interlibrary loan, but that took a month.

Then came Sci-Hub. In 2011, a Russian grad student, Alexandra Elbakyan, operating in Kazakhstan, started digitizing scientific papers. She put them online for free. The publishing companies sued. When she lost, she changed the domain name. They have kept playing cat and mouse to the present day. Now, I find that Sci-Hub is usually still accessible, but not always. Science Magazine studied the phenomenon and found one unexpected group of frequent users: scientists at wealthy American institutions. Sci-Hub, before all the lawsuits, was easier to use than what the libraries were paying for. And, of course, everyone else in the world was using it too. It had become the major way many journals were accessed.

Heroic underdog Russians fighting for freedom isn't a phrase you hear often in the US media these days.

Biden has decided to put an end to this nonsense. If the American people pay for science, they should see it. And, if it's on the Internet, as everything is these days, that means the rest of the world gets to see it, too.

If the Brits and the European Union follow suit, as I think they will, then it's game over for paywalled science. Why do I think this?

Ever since Jacques Monod and François Jacob, Europe's leading scientists in the early sixties, switched to English for their publications in 1962, the world has published science in English. As such, most of the world's best journals are either American or British. (A few are Australian or Canadian.) These journals will all be fully accessible. They won't just make the papers with US government support free. That would be silly, as it wouldn't be enough paywalled content to make the magazines' current business models work.

When Chinese scientists publish their best papers, it's in English in these journals. However, China funds more science than any other government in the world. Most Chinese science is published in Chinese journals. I have my doubts Xi will feel as strongly about this issue as Biden does.

Even so, that will be most science done in the world, freely accessible to anyone, without cost. Now, we just have to teach the world how to read scientific papers. It's possible--I've taught this skill to bright high school students.

As much as I'd like to say this executive action will bring spectacular progress to our planet, I can't. Fake science news will continue unabated. No need to shed any tears for the lost livelihoods of grifters, snake-oil salesmen, and politicians profiting off public ignorance. Empowering yourself to make independent judgments on matters of global significance by learning how to read a scientific paper takes a lot of effort, effort that few are willing to expend.

Still, for the science-trained and the few non-scientists willing to put in the time, the world's scientific knowledge will be a click away.

Thanks, Joe.

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