As a medical student, research is something we 'should' know something about, and 'should' use to develop an evidence based approach to our clinical practice. We do our best to critically appraise the literature, understand what all the statistics actually mean and, fingers crossed, we'll be able to tell you at the end of it whether the research was any good or not.
I certainly didn't give a great deal of thought to how we are physically able to access research articles. It wasn't until I did some lab time of my own that I realised also that a lot of research means starting from scratch, because raw data from research studies stays within that research group.
It was around this time that I became aware of the Right to Research Coalition (http://righttoresearch.org/) which is based across the pond, but we're working to get a base here in the UK for this important issue. So what is Open Access and why is it important for research and clinical practice, and, indeed, global health and the international community?
When I want to read a research article, it's quite straightforward - I just log in to Pubmed either on campus or I log in from home. Every now and again I'll hit a brick wall and be unable to access a relevant article. Has that ever happened to you? Imagine that happened every time you tried to read any article you ever wanted to read. Then think what research developments have happened in the last few months alone. Aspirin to prevent cancer, laparascopic surgery for colorectal cancer, the pros and cons of new targeted therapies... Our ability to stay up to date clinically relies on our being able to read journal articles with ease; and yet some journals cost thousands of pounds for a subscription. Great, if you are part of an organisation that does this for you, but not so great if you're not.
Now, if you're thinking 'yes, but research is expensive and this is a way of paying for it' - well, research has kind of already been paid for, often by the government or charities. We have a right to see this research. A system that was never designed for profit has been made into one. There are many more open access journals now, demonstrating that it is a sustainable business model.
The problem isn't just clinical up-to-date-ness, it's also a question of making science accessible to all. This blog explains the problem through the eyes of a scientist in India:http://poynder.blogspot.co.uk/2006/05/why-india-needs-open-access.html. Simply, we are shutting off many countries of the world either from seeing what research is happening elsewhere, and therefore from being able to add to the knowledge base. If we are serious about global health (and we should be), this needs to be addressed.
Finally, it's also a question of making research more streamlined. Just think - when you read a research article about something, you are told the aims and objective, the data is categorised and analysed and then you are told the conclusions of the study. But what about the raw data? That stays with the author. Obviously this is also a question of research ethics and patient confidentiality, but what if that raw data could be accessible to other research groups rather than having to start from the beginning?
I'd urge you to check out some of the links above if you're interested:
What do you think about Open Access? Have you heard of it before, do you think it's a good thing?