The Case for Open Access Publishing from a Rural High School Teacher

by Jeff Wehr | Feb 13, 2018

Sigma Xi member Jeff Wehr wrote this piece in response to Sigma Xi’s conversation about the pros and cons of using an open access publishing system to disseminate scientific research.
Jeff Wehr Scientific discovery is a universal journey for anyone with a passion for following his or her curiosity. It discriminates neither against the newest of amateurs nor against the seasoned professionals. Scientific research finds itself in rural areas of the world and the largest of urban institutions. However, for those in rural areas, accessing adequate literature to support scientific research can be harder than conducting the research in the first place. 

I have the great pleasure of being the principal mentor of the Advanced STEM Research Laboratory in the beautiful rural community of Odessa, Washington, a town of approximately 900 people. As the high school science department, I teach integrated science, biology, chemistry, physics, and computer programming to typically 70 students, ending each day by mentoring between 7 and 15 students who have a passion for science or engineering research. 

We are remote. We are rural. But we are scientists and engineers who have published work and travel the globe sharing our research. We have support from major research facilities across the planet yet one barrier always stands in our way: access to scientific literature. Rural communities do not have large institutions with libraries. We do not have libraries with budgets to afford subscriptions to scientific research journals. We travel more than 50 miles to the nearest university with the hope that they can continue to afford the journals that we need to review for our research. As the federal government continues cutting public education funds, our rural communities certainly cannot afford the high price of even an individual online journal. Consequently, more and more universities are cutting the quantity of journals to which they subscribe for the same financial reasons. This forces my students and me to turn to online resources with heavy price tags per article. In a time of instantaneous information at our fingertips, why must rural or remote communities be denied cutting-edge research methodologies, crucial and timely data, or newfound scientific evidence? 

Open access scientific journal publishing, which makes published research free for readers by shifting the publishing fees to authors or subsidies, would revolutionize our rural research laboratory. Public dollars fund much of the scientific research occurring across the United States, so why should we not be able to access these findings?  Why should my 16-year-old student pay $75 to a company that published the results of the research that, if she read it today, could further advance the scientific community through her own research? 

Cost benefit analyses for the United Kingdom and the Netherlands estimated the savings associated with open access publishing models. After comparing traditional publishing models with open access models, John Houghton from Victoria University's Institute of Strategic Economic Studies in Melbourne, Australia, projected that the UK higher education sector circa 2007 could have saved £80 million/year by changing from a proprietary-based platform to open access publishing. Using similar cost-benefit comparisons John Houghton joined Jos de Jonge and Marcia van Oploo of EIM Group/Research voor Beleid (Research for Policy) in the Netherlands and estimated a €133 million/year savings for the Dutch in a worldwide open access publishing system that uses an author-pays model. Open access may allow the author to retain ownership, undergoes continuous peer review, and since 2008 the global sharing of open access journal papers has been gradually increasing. 

There may be obstacles to open access publishing such as varying processing fees for the researchers or their institutions, or the number and quality of open access journals across the scientific disciplines; however, models implementing open access in Brazil and India address these obstacles. In these countries, most open access journals do not charge processing fees to authors and the numbers of open access issues and journals are steadily growing. A 2015 study conducted by Stuart Lawson of the University of London revealed 68.8 percent of open access publishers offered fee waivers for authors who did not have enough funding to publish in those journals. These types of incentives advocate for and support open access in low- and middle-income countries, but also in rural educational facilities like the ASR Laboratory at Odessa High School.

Open access publishing needs to be available for rural areas and low-income neighborhoods in the United States, developing countries, secondary educators, and secondary students worldwide—who are our future scientists and engineers. Open access publishing provides everyone the same opportunity to share in the universal journey to follow his or her curiosity. 

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