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Open Access: The Pathway to Innovation

Jack Andraka is being honored as a Champion of Change for the vision he has demonstrated and for his commitment to open science.

Jack Andraka

Jack Andraka is being honored as a Champion of Change for the vision he has demonstrated and for his commitment to open science.

When I was 14 a close family friend, who was like an uncle to me, succumbed to pancreatic cancer.  When the disease hit so close to home, I felt like I needed to know more.  So I went online and started reading through the available information and what I discovered was eye opening.  A big reason for the dismal pancreatic cancer survival rate is that there is no inexpensive, simple way to detect it early.

I was sure there had to be a better way. But as I started to research online (using the teenager’s favorite sources, Google and Wikipedia) I started running into problems. I would find an article I needed, I would click to start reading, and then a new window would pop up informing me that if I wanted the paper, it would cost $35. The first thought that came to mind was, “Who in their right mind would pay $35 for 11 pieces of paper???”

Now I can answer my question as to why anyone would pay $35 for 11 pieces of paper: It’s scientific knowledge.  

Because of the high demand for the newest and best scientific research, the major publications have successfully — yet subtly — commoditized this knowledge.  Publishers are basically discriminating based on whether or not you or your school can afford to access.  This tier-based approach for the dissemination of knowledge — I believe— is incredibly detrimental to the entire field of science.

Scientific research benefits from the open sharing of knowledge. When I was working on a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer, there was one key paper… but imagine if I didn’t have access to that paper. I might never have had the idea that led to my success. That to me, that is the fundamental problem with scientific journals: they prevent the democratization of innovation.

Google and Wikipedia were the sites I relied heavily on to gather most of the information I needed.   But it was by no means easy. I still had to send out hundreds of emails and pay hundreds of dollars to get access to those articles. Imagine if we removed the cost barrier. If the flow of scientific knowledge was unrestricted no matter what your age, race, or how much money you had, how would that impact your ability to do quality scientific research?

Then the only restriction would be was what was in your head. That’s the ONLY way to include the billions of future innovators: to make access to articles free. If we did, can you imagine the possibilities?  The best ideas in the world usually come from the most unexpected places!  When you deny open access you deny people like me the ability to innovate. You are leaving behind billions of potential innovators and innumerable amounts of world-changing innovations.

People’s minds must be free, and that means the minds of all, not the minds of a select few. A scientific discovery is like a grain of wheat. A grain of wheat is just a singular grain, unless of course you cultivate it and let it grow, and then you have many grains of wheat that will continue to multiply. A scientific discovery is in itself just a singular discovery unless you allow others to see it and add their input and creativity. Then, you have a scientific revolution.

We have our grains; so now the question is what will we do with them?

I for one am supporting the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) in its efforts to promote open access. You’ll find me giving talks in person around the world and through social media about the importance of open access to innovation and STEM.

Jack Andraka is a Maryland High School Student.