April 25, 2021

The Role of Open Source in Health

This is my eighth blog post for the UVA class LPPS 4720.

Academic research is critical for the advancement of medical science, yet many of the most prestigious journals are locked behind insurmountable paywalls. Open Access (OA) journals seek to combat this by bringing the principles of open-source to academia—they are completely free and open to the public so that anyone with an Internet connection can access quality medical research. OA also limits many copyright and licensing restrictions, similar to the spirit of Creative Commons licenses, so that the health community can freely build upon each other’s work.

The status quo of medical journals is the traditional copyrighted pay-to-read model in which scientists and the general public must pay a designated price to read a journal article. Many journals also have a subscription-based model in which one has to pay a monthly or yearly fee to access the articles. While this makes it easy for researchers and publishers to make money, it is harmful to those who do not have the financial resources to access this information. Research, especially medical research, takes a lot of time and money so there is a valid argument for charging steep prices in order to break even or turn a profit. However, it is still possible for Open Access journals to make money via donations, advertising, submission fees, etc. The key point is that Open Access is not a business model or a type of license—it is about reducing barriers to accessing journal articles and putting power in the hands of individual researchers and authors instead of publishers.

An important part of academic journals is prestige, which is often measured in terms of how many peers cite an article. Open Access journals have the same peer review system as traditional journals and removing barriers to access allows their articles to be cited by a larger number of peers, potentially increasing the prestige and credibility of the journal. Authors and researchers should be motivated by advancing the state-of-the-art in science, not by money, and Open Access encourages this view while traditional publishing is centered around profits.

While traditional journal publishing has seen great success in the past, I think that most medical research should be conducted in an Open Access format in the future. This is especially important because new pandemics like COVID-19 disproportionately impact less wealthy countries which do not have the funds to access some research which is available to more affluent nations. Access to information should be a human right, and it is crucial that everyone in the medical community can learn from each other and stand upon the shoulders of giants to solve the hardest problems in medicine and health.

© Samarth Kishor 2020

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