My November trip to DC comes at a perfect time for me to escape the craziness near the end of the semester here in Los Angeles. The Capitol is four blocks away from my room in Hotel George while I continue to write my Masters’ thesis on different cell types within the visual thalamus. Unfortunately, I hit a roadblock.

I need to write about specific connections between the two different types of light sensing cells, rods and cones, in the retina. I vaguely remember reading an article that dealt with the very topic about a year back. But not its title, authors or even the journal it was published in. After searching PubMed, the online database for medicine and life sciences, for 15 minutes or so, the right article is in front of me.

The abstract is perfect. It talks about the electrical connections between rods and cones. I need to download the entire text of the article before actually citing it as a source. However, once again my writing comes to a screeching halt.

As I try to download the article, the journal website asks me for subscription information. I don’t have any. It is the first time I have been asked for one.

Usually, I work at my University where scientific articles are freely available. I faintly remember the orientation session when the university boasted of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to provide free access to these expensive journals. I can see why this was a selling point for graduate students. Today, this one article is cutting a $32 hole in my poor grad student pocket.

But wait a second. This does not make sense. Why can I, a taxpayer, not have free access to the research I helped fund at every stage of the scientific process? How did the fruits of our investments become the properties of the corporations?

Every year, just as the Department of Transportation invests billions in our roadways, the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and numerous other governmental organizations collectively dole out billions of tax dollars in grants to scientists at hundreds of universities and research institutes to conduct basic and applied research in physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering and biology and everything in between.

If, as taxpayers, we can ride the roads our funds helped build, surf the oceans we helped keep clean and send our kids to the public school system we put in place, albeit with a nominal fee, why is similar access to the direct outcome of our investments in science so pricey?

Sure, the public does not fund all the research. Philanthropic organizations like Wellcome Trust, the Sloan, Keck and Hughes foundations, to name a few, sponsor research too. But their monetary contributions dwarf in comparison to that from the public.

The public-funded grants pay the salaries of the researchers and their army of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows while footing the costs of equipment, materials and general operating costs of the labs. Funds from the grant kitty are further used to disseminate experimental results at scientific meetings and conferences.

The ultimate success of any such grant is gauged by the number of peer-reviewed scientific articles it leads to, the impact factor of the journals it gets published in and the number of other articles that cite this research. In short, the published article is the measurable output of the investment in science and technology.

But sadly, these articles do not directly enter the public domain. Hidden behind the veil of heavy subscription fees, these articles become copyrighted properties of the $19 billion academic publishing industry.

I personally can’t afford subscriptions to the journals. Same is the case with small liberal-arts and community colleges. After all, the yearly fees can run upwards of $200 for individuals and $5000 for institutions per journal. And considering the thousands of scientific journals available, the overall cost of availability of information is indeed very high. Don’t those students deserve the same opportunities as their counterparts at big research universities?

And then there is the general public. If a cancer patient wants to learn more about the treatment he is undergoing, is it reasonable to expect him to pay five meals worth of money to access each article.

On one hand academics complain of a lack of understanding of science by the general public. But, if a curious George wants to learn more about building his own solar panel in his garage, why should he not be encouraged?

Of course, these issues are not new and have been pondered upon in great detail. The Open Access movement has gained widespread recognition over the past two decades with various academics and even governments supporting it. With an aim of making research articles in all fields openly available, the Budapest Open Access Initiative of 2001, supported by 600 institutions worldwide, was the first such major international push in the direction of open-access.

A major boost to this movement came in 2003, when NIH, the biggest funding agency for biomedical research, recommended archiving of accepted manuscripts funded by them in online repositories within a year of their publication. Though initial compliance was low at a mere 18%, after President George W Bush signed the America Competes Act of 2007, mandating online submission of NIH funded research within a year, about 70% of NIH funded articles made it to the public, a significant increase.

In 2007, a consortium of five premier research universities pledged to underwrite all articles published by their scholars. Yet such initiatives are fairly sparse and face stiff opposition from the publishing industry.

And why shouldn’t they? For a private enterprise, the publishing industry has perhaps the best business model. Without funding the production of the content or its quality control they end up with a highly sought after product. After all, research is funded by the grants and peer-review is performed pro-bono by experts whose source of income is, you guessed it, grants.

Given the fast pace of publication of new research and the need to stay abreast of current knowledge, immediate access to the latest research is imperative for the scores of scientists providing the journals with a well-devoted customer pool.

Sure, the cadres of editors, web developers, designers, publishers and others who do add value to the reader experience. But is this worth the 3 billion dollars in profits reported by the two biggest academic publishers for 2009-2010, an overall net 35% profit.

This must definitely stir the images of the Occupy protests nationwide. After all, this is nothing but an example of the investments of the 99% leading to the wealth accumulation for the 1%, obviously in a scholarly context.

Seeking to protect their profits, publishers argue that the outcome of public investment is the summary reports that the scientists submitted to the funding organizations. But is this even a sound argument? First, the summary reports are not peer-reviewed, tried or tested. Second, if the article is to not be considered a part of the grant output, then should it be illegal for the journals to not remunerate the scientists for producing the content?

Publishers further argue that open-access to scientific journals would violate their copyrights, threaten jobs and lead to reduction in quality of scientific content and other myths lacking real basis.

Given the different policies of various institutions, funding agencies and of the publishing houses, journals are adopting practices based on various modifications of the following three models:

- Open Access Model: Since their first introduction in 1990’s, the number of open-access journals has risen steadily reaching about 5000 today. These journals provide free access of all their content to the public, in lieu of a publication fee to be paid by the authors of the articles.

- Hybrid Model: Other journals and publishing houses like SpringerLink and Elsevier choose a hybrid model, wherein, some content that has been pre-paid by the authors is free to the public, while all others can be accessed by subscriptions of one-time payments. Interestingly enough, despite pre-payment for certain articles, the subscription prices of most journals have not gone down.

- Delayed Open Access Model: These journals allow open access of all their material to the public, only after a delay ranging from 6 months to one year. Access before this period required payments.

Though different models are successful to various extents, most journals still charge exorbitant subscription fees.

The issue of open access is more relevant now than ever before. It is the time for the 99% to stand up to the 1% for their right to free information. Let’s ask our representatives to change the laws that favor the corporation’s profit on public money over public interest.

Senators John Cornyn and Joe Leiberman have been co-sponsoring the Federal Research Public Access Act in every legislative year since 2006 to extend the scope of open-access by mandating research by all federal funding agencies with a budget of $100 million or more. Lacking enough votes, this legislation has not passed either chamber in the last five years. It is responsibility of the people to voice their support for this legislation to their representatives.

Seeking recommendations to provide broader access of federally funded research articles, the White House issued an Request for Information for comments from general public as well as research organizations, universities and other non-federal stakeholders till January 2, 2012.

Information is power. So lets empower the people.

Related at the Scientific American blog network:

What Is Peer Review for?

The Scientific Paper: past, present and probable future

Books: ‘Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science’ by Michael Nielsen