Why Scientific Journals Should Become More Accessible to the General Public

Abstract: In the wake of Covid-19, scientific journals should become more accessible to every global citizen, for the sake of public health.

Keywords: web accessibility, scientific journals, public health, peer-reviewed articles

As the 21st century rages on, the world is more connected than ever, thanks to the free exchange of information available via the internet. Every day, global citizens produce some 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, a number that may seem unfathomable to most of us. Further, Forbes reports that there are 5 billion internet searches conducted every day.

Despite these whopping numbers, however, it can be difficult to separate verified facts and data from the various forms of misinformation that saturate the web. Around the world, misinformation comes in many forms, including biased and/or badly reported news, clickbait headlines accompanied by articles with little to no substance, and fake news. The coronavirus pandemic only served to exacerbate the issue, called an “infodemic.”

As both real information and fake news become increasingly available online, the scientific community is looking for ways to keep misinformation at bay. Scientific journals of all types regularly publish peer-reviewed scientific research and articles that have been vetted for accuracy. Peer review is a form of self-regulation, fostering accountability and an open dialogue, no matter the subject at hand. 

Unfortunately, however, the bulk of online scientific journals are monetized, restricting their readers in the name of profits. This is a disservice to the general public, who may be unable to access peer-reviewed articles yet are bombarded with misinformation that’s free to access. For the sake of public health and to help curb the spread of misinformation, scientific journals should be more widely accessible to the general public. Here’s what you need to know about the value of open access, and how scientific journals can go about making their writing more accessible.

Weighing the Benefits of Public Accessibility

Interestingly, there are plenty of peer-reviewed articles that address the topic of free access, its potential impact, and its viability in terms of bridging the knowledge gap. Many of those articles are published in scientific journals that restrict readers in some way or require a fee to access. Generally speaking, open access “refers to peer-reviewed scholarly research that is available, unrestricted, to anyone with an internet connection,” according to Your Genome.

Proponents of open access claim that it benefits everyone from the scientific community to students in developing countries and the general public as a whole. On the other hand, there are plenty on the other side of the issue. Certain scientists and journal publishers believe that open access is akin to a slippery slope, wherein the traditional peer-review process is abandoned, undermining its very mission. 

Yet, where scientific journals are concerned, the benefits of increased accessibility outweigh the potential downfalls. For starters, researchers themselves may benefit from open access, as their work becomes more widely available and relevant. On a community level, open access has the potential to quell misinformation while keeping the general public informed.

Improving Communities Via Open Access

In discussions of open access, it’s important to keep the needs of the general public in mind. Scientific papers often include niche-specific jargon, for example, that may be unfamiliar to the average citizen. To improve accessibility, researchers, writers, and journal editors alike should work to explain difficult concepts in terms that laypeople can understand.

At its core, open access is truly intended to help every citizen, including those living with a disability or physical impairment. When publishing an online journal, those with visual impairments (many of whom may utilize a screen reader) must also be considered. To improve the accessibility of online publications, it’s a good idea to keep it simple: Avoid low-contrast colors and excessive pop-ups, create tables to help organize large data sets, and provide transcriptions of video files for those who are visually impaired.

Of course, the final step in improving the accessibility of scientific journals is by allowing for open access to at least some available articles, especially those related to public health and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Battle Against Misinformation in a Digital World

As previously mentioned, the Covid-19 pandemic helped spawn an abundance of online misinformation, and the European Union was hit particularly hard. Yet some countries are more strongly impacted by fake news, clickbait, and other forms of online misinformation. In a study of misinformation that was published on Facebook in 2020 and 2021, researchers determined that “Italian citizens are more exposed to the infodemic” than other citizens of the EU and the United States.

Keep in mind that much of the misinformation spread via Facebook and similar channels is directly related to the Covid pandemic. Average citizens looking for data on the efficacy and safety of vaccines, for instance, often find themselves inundated by information of questionable origin and accuracy. And it can be extremely difficult for novice researchers and everyday citizens to determine if a website is trustworthy, or if the article they’re accessing is actually fake news, especially if it looks professional and is well-written. 
Today, web access is a crucial part of daily life, for students and a large chunk of the workforce alike. And in terms of public health, the accessibility of peer-reviewed articles published in scientific journals may even be a matter of life and death. Rather than requiring journal readers to have a university affiliation and login credentials, or charging a fee, consider allowing open access to every global citizen.

Indiana Lee
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