Copyright and the Right to Open Access. What can Healthcare Providers do?


“The exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something.” This is the definition of copyright according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It all seems perfectly straightforward up to this point.

Here’s a question to a busy physician, a director of a geriatric clinic, a parent of a child with a rare disorder or just a healthy person that is intrigued about a certain condition: Have you ever tried -as an individual not related to any type of academic institution- to look up a scientific article that might help you better understand a certain medical condition? And if so, where you able to freely access it? The answer to this question is most likely no. The price to access scientific a publication generally ranges from 10 dollars per article to “terms not specified”. The price to access scientific journal publications has been skyrocketing over the last years. For profit versus non-profit journals are 4.5 times more expensive. The cost per citation is 9.2 times higher. Making profit is not a bad thing per se, as long as it doesn’t hamper access. At that point it becomes nonessential and outrageous.


Don’t get me wrong; copyright is a necessary protection for creators and authors. It’s an essential element of ownership and society has been fighting to ensure a proper usage since the concept was first established in 1710. But very often, battles have been fought for the wrong reasons. Copyright is no longer being deployed to help authors; instead it has been focusing on benefiting publishers and restricting access to high quality medical research.

The new health era is all about fostering scientific innovation and medical technologies. Patients are increasingly taking control over their own health. While acknowledging these current trends, access to scientific research –funded by governments from our taxes– is exclusively reserved for the academic elite. The most prestigious universities are setting millions of dollars aside each year to access research that has created by their own peers.

When looking at this, one wonders how it’s possible that publicly funded research cannot be accessed freely. In this context, a crucial part implicates the involvement of researchers, healthcare practitioners and society as a whole.

What can healthcare practitioners and medical researchers do to improve open access to quality medical research?

  • Recognize the problem instead of seeing it as threat. Academic publishers that charge exorbitant fees to access publications hamper innovation, creativity and knowledge generation. As a medical researcher, keep in mind that outstanding research findings do not have to be associated with elitist academic publishers.
  • Embrace the change and take advantage of open access medical research publication platforms like PLOS and resign from publications that keep research restricted. Harvard University spent over 3.7 million dollars in 2012 to gain access to journal publications. Harvard’s faculty advisory council sent out a memo to its 2,100 teaching and research staff to encourage open source publications.
  • Share information with peers across different specialties. Breaking down the silos between specialties will allow the medical community to expand its medical discoveries and collaborate towards a more transparent and accessible system.
  • Demand free high quality medical information. As a physician, you need to be able to make accurate decisions based on the benefit of the latest research, leading to better patient outcomes.
  • Look at the bigger picture. High quality medical research is not only reserved for academia. Individuals are becoming more self-conscious about their health. As a healthcare provider, your responsibility is to accommodate your patients needs and protect their interests. Promotion of universal access to knowledge to knowledge has to be seen as an ethical obligation.

In sum, the medical world has to start acting and take control over knowledge and research dissemination. There is enormous potential for a radical change in the way access to health information is being channeled. It’s up to the medical and scientific community to drive this change and foster innovation through collaboration and open access to high quality medical research publications

The big underlying question still remains: will the perception of open access medical platforms change in the medical world? Will healthcare providers realize the importance of sharing information for the greater good of innovation and society as a whole?

As Henry David Thoreau nicely put it: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

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Based in Amsterdam, Roberta graduated from Erasmus University in Health Economics, Policy and Law in 2011. During her academic path, she focused on researching the socio-economic inequalities in health care utilization in the rural areas of India. Over the past year, she has worked at Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, analyzing new disruptive patterns within the global health system -ranging from health systems to start-up business models. Over the past six years she has been working for a Dutch publishing firm as Marketing Manager and Executive Editor. Roberta is passionate about health innovations, disruptive change in developing countries, social media and photography. She is a lover of good food, travels, old movie theaters… and Apple.