How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

After the Paywalls Tumble Down

First, a thought experiment: Let’s pretend that the White House hadn’t last week announced that academic journals will by 2026 have to make any paper and data based on publicly financed research available to the public immediately for free. Let’s pretend the White House instead had announced that those journals would have to make any paper and its data based on publicly financed research understandable and usable by the public immediately for free. (Basic research excluded.)

Would there have been as much excitement about that announcement as there was about the actual policy change? And who would have been cast as the villains opposing understandable and usable research? Would it have been journal publishers, those Monopoly-game tycoons trying to convince us they can’t buy a break? (Really. folks — your faux woundedness at your lack of inclusion in the White House decision was hilarious.) And where would most researchers and the scientific establishment come down on “understandable and usable by the public”?

In posing this experiment, I’m not belittling the momentous step the White House has taken with this policy change, nor the jubilation of open access advocates. Researchers, students, patients, entrepreneurs, journalists — these are just some of the groups that for decades have been shut out of research published behind paywalls and who will benefit mightily from the new policy. As Alondra Nelson, the acting head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (which issued the new policy) said: “The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually. There should be no delay or barrier between the American public and the returns on their investments in research.”

Of course, if Nelson took her entire statement seriously, OSTP wouldn’t stop at mandating mere access. The barriers “between the American public and the returns on their investments in research” simply begin at mere access. Other barriers include jargon, lack of context for the research, lack of clear impact of the findings and lack of specific solutions that the findings suggest — all structural problems with research writing that attempts to make research writing clearer can’t fix.

Nelson’s statement still reflects the traditional research model of research value: that the bulk of research’s value is unleashed by and at the moment of publication. A paywall directs almost all of the research’s value to the research paper’s author (to their career) and the publishing journal and those whom the author cites in the paper, as well as to those whom can actually understand what the paper says and take the time to read it. Open access advocates accept this value model and just extend it beyond the paywall to the public — for them, more value is of course instantly realized when more people gain access to the research. Open up the published paper, and the world is instantly a better place, barriers to understanding the paper’s arcane language, figures and actual achievement notwithstanding.

In real life, of course, the full value of research isn’t realized for non-researchers until you the expert provide interpretation and conversation as well as access. That’s the work of the public expert — to make the research understandable and usable if at all possible, and to understand how various publics could use research-based insights more effectively. But that work is far less valued in academics than the value of access, whether they support full open access or not.

Access kicks off the full value chain of research. To deliver the full value chain — for the public as well as the researcher — we need the guidance and focus of the public expert. Organizations that get this gain a huge competitive advantage, one that will remain well after the paywalls come tumbling down.