Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go

A guest post by student scientist Jack Andraka

After a close family friend died from pancreatic cancer, I turned to the Internet to help me understand more about this disease that had killed him so quickly. I was 14 and didn’t even know I had a pancreas but I soon educated myself about what it was and started learning about how it was diagnosed. I was shocked to discover that the current way of detecting pancreatic cancer was older than my dad and wasn’t very sensitive or accurate. I figured there had to be a better way!

I soon learned that many of the papers I was interested in reading were hidden behind expensive pay walls. I convinced my mom to use her credit card for a few but was discouraged when some of them turned out to be expensive but not useful to me. She became much less willing to pay when she found some in the recycle bin! One of the best journal articles was called Carbon Nanotubes: the route towards applications.

This was the [paywall to the] article I smuggled into biology class the day my teacher was explaining antibodies and how they worked. I was not able to access very many more articles directly. I was 14 and didn’t drive and it seemed impossible to go to a University and request access to journals.

Some adults have told me I should have done that but, as a 14 year old, it was intimidating. It was also hard to get my parents to drive me to a University library since they didn’t really believe in my project and were trying to convince me to change projects! So there are a lot of barriers for kids to learn more and educate themselves. Open access would help people like me who may not drive or have access to a University library.

Luckily I was able to convince my mom to finance some more articles I needed and I learned to try different ways of circumventing the pay walls. I emailed one author with some questions though and he was able to provide me with a copy. Writing authors directly is a good way to get articles without paying but I didn’t figure this out right away.

I was persistent enough to be able to get access or at least the abstracts to enough journals to help me write my proposal which I then used the Internet to find and email over 200 local professors who were working on pancreatic cancer. Of course, most didn’t take me seriously or were too busy or just not interested in helping but I finally did get into a lab. Of course when I did get into a lab, then the University had access to so many articles because they subscribed to them. However, even universities are feeling that the subscriptions are expensive.

I was on a panel with Luis A. Ubiñas , head of the Ford Foundation, and heard him describe how running times at the Olympics plummeted after African countries started participating. I was thinking that if kids around the world could get connected to the internet and journals and each other, that even more creativity would be harnessed to solve the world’s problems.

Open access would be an important first step. I would love to see research that is publicly funded by taxes to be publicly available through neighborhood libraries and public school libraries.

 It would make it so much easier for people like me to find the information they need.  If I can create a sensor to detect cancer using the Internet, imagine what you can do.



At 15, Jack Andraka of Crownsville, MD won $75,000 in scholarship funds at the 2012 Intel Science Fair for his invention of an early ‘dip stick’  test for pancreatic cancer. Now 16 and a high school sophomore, Jack continues his research activities while serving as an advocate for STEM education and Open Access to scientific research.

Follow Jack on Twitter  @jackandraka


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25 Responses to Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go

  1. Niraj says:


    Going in the right direction. Today I am writing the thesis but the university library server is down and hence I can’t open the subscription based journals.

    Open access is the only way!

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  2. Carlos says:

    Hi Jack,

    It’s great to see a young boy with that kind of ideas…makes me think youth can save this planet!!…I hope you still thinking that way after all succes you will have…Congratulations for that brain!

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  3. Jane Hardy says:

    I am thrilled to be able to write to you, Jack. I admire you deeply. I am strongly in favor of open access. Is it important to know who benefits from charging for articles? If only part of the money goes to the authors, who gets the rest? Would those interests put up a fight to protect their income stream from these articles? I agree the public should have access to taxpayer-funded research. Charges for scientific articles are like brakes on medical innovation. Congress should fix this problem. Thank you so much for addressing it!

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  4. Marvelous post, Jack.

    I particularly liked the section:- “I soon learned that many of the papers I was interested in reading were hidden behind expensive pay walls. I convinced my mom to use her credit card for a few but was discouraged when some of them turned out to be expensive but not useful to me. She became much less willing to pay when she found some in the recycle bin!”

    I for one (if anyone would second me) would very much like to see you involved in some shape or form in this years Open Access Week in October !! http://www.openaccessweek.org/

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  5. Hi Jack,
    This is one of the strongest pladoyers for open access I’ve ever come across. You do not only help fight cancer but also the walled gardens of publications
    “I was thinking that if kids around the world could get connected to the internet and journals and each other, that even more creativity would be harnessed to solve the world’s problems.” Jack this is what OER initiatives have been fighting for and YOU have demonstrated how important that is! Keep up your persistency! Your parents can be proud of you and you have every reason to be proud of yourself!

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  6. Janis says:

    Let’s also remember that kids like this show up in all economic strata, and if the local school or library has cheap connectivity but the family has no other money left after buying the bare minimum of food, then that bright kid doesn’t get to do this sort of thing.

    With paywalls in place, a bright, motivated kid from a poor or working-class environment will never get to be a Jack, no matter how bright they are.

    But I suppose someone’s kids have to mop the floors, right? :-(

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  7. Anne says:

    Jack, your blog entry and the answers to it have opened my eyes to a great injustice, not just to the individuals but to humanity. I wish success to you and all advocates for open access!

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  8. Well done, a great article for an excellent and worthwhile cause.

    Open Access can and must be the future of science.


    Dr Alessandro Demaio
    Translational Global Health

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  9. Wendy Walker says:

    Actually, it is already a requirement that all NIH funded projects make their research articles available to the public (open access) on pubmed central. Some journals have an embargo of 6 months or a year before the article is made available. After that the article (either the final version or a pre-publication draft) is posted on pubmed central by the journal or the author. To find the free version, go to the pubmed website, search for your article by title or subject, when you click on it, you should see the link to the free version in the upper right hand corner (alongside the link to the journal’s version).

    Good luck with your future research!

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    • Richard F says:

      But let’s remember that what the NIH does isn’t what other journals do. Most journals, regardless of focus, are not open access . Despite that much of the research in these journals is at least partially publicly funded, the public still has to pay for the access for information they (may) have paid for once already.

      That aside, even Universities are beginning to complain that they cannot even pay for the journal subscriptions, many of which include data they or their faculty have contributed to, data-wise or financially. If places like Harvard are complaining about journal subscription prices in spite of the huge amount of research they fund and publish every year, there’s a serious problem with the current business model that needs to be fixed.

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  11. JT says:

    My mum was diagnosed with cancer a month ago.

    People like you give me hope for the future…

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  14. Wendy Walker says:

    Richard F:

    You misunderstand.

    The NIH (National Institute of Health) is not a journal. It is the institute that distributes the public taxpayers’ money to the scientists for medical research (there is also the NSF, National Science Foundation which distributes money for basic science research). The NIH and NSF have a rule that for all research they fund (ie all research paid for by taxpayers’ dollars), ALL publications that come from that work MUST be submitted to pubmed central, where anyone can access it for free, in addition to whichever journal it is published in. So for every article there is the paid version (published by the journal) AND the free version on pubmed central.

    NIH really enforces this rule. Whenever a scientist applies for grant funding, they have to list the Pubmed central ID for all their prior publications funded by the NIH. Hence , if they don’t follow the rule to submit their manuscripts to Pubmed central they can’t get anymore money from taxpayers.

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    • Richard F says:

      Hm, no, I don’t really misunderstand anything. What the NIH does and what everyone else does are different . The problem that Jack is discussing overall is the closed nature of peer-reviewed research and the lack of public access to things that taxpayers have already paid for once. I mean, he even talks about this, even mentions Hardvard’s own financial issues with this. He’s talking about access overall, not just particular to articles in the hard sciences. It’s a macro, not micro, issue in the industry as a whole, not in part.

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  16. Brooke Maine says:

    Great story, Jack! I teach high school AP Biology and Anatomy & Physiology, so this is right up my alley! I am very impressed with your drive to not let the paywalls get in your way and how dedicated you were to learning more about pancreatic cancer and its detection. You are a great role model to young scientists everywhere and I applaud you! Check out the post I wrote about your story on my blog: http://bmaine.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/a-great-student-scientist-blog-post/

    Good luck in your future, keep up the great work!

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  20. 電動機車 says:

    I like to share knowledge that I’ve accrued with the
    year to help improve team performance.

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