I've long believed that there are parallels between the global campaign for open access to the biomedical literature and the campaign for access to essential medicines.
For a start, both information and medicines can promote health and save lives. Indeed the late James Grant, former executive director of Unicef, argued that, “the most urgent task before us is to get medical and health knowledge to those most in need of that knowledge. Of the approximately 50 million people who were dying each year in the late 1980s, fully two thirds could have been saved through the application of that knowledge.” Part of the moral case for disseminating the results of health research universally stems from the urgent need to deliver information to health workers in low and middle income settings.
What's more, intellectual property rights are impeding both the dissemination of knowledge and of drugs. In the case of knowledge, many traditional publishers own the copyright to the research that they publish and restrict access to it so that they can profit from selling the works. In the latter case, there have been several highly publicized cases of drug patents impeding the world's poor from accessing life-saving medications. Patents and exclusive licenses drive up the price of drugs, putting them out of reach of low and middle income nations.
In many ways, universities are at the front lines of the battle to disseminate both knowledge and medicines. As John Willinsky has argued in his book The Access Principle, which is freely available online, university researchers have a particular duty to ensure that their work doesn't only reach the rich world. "How are we to ensure,” asks Willinsky, “the university’s contribution to a fairer world if access to the research it produces about the world is itself a source of inequality?" The good news is that there are encouraging signs that university support for open access is growing.
And what about access to university innovations? Amy Kapczynski and colleagues have argued that "universities have long been important in the development of life-saving medicines and technologies, and they once considered patenting to be antithetical to academic science and public health." Not any more. In 2001, universities were granted over 3000 patents.
Many of these patents are for drugs that could save lives in the developing world, a situation that is being challenged by a vocal coalition of students and faculty across North America working to ensure that universities' innovations reach those who need them the most: the global poor. The coalition, called Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), was in the news recently, for scoring a victory at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Meetings between the local student chapter of UAEM, top UBC administration, and UBC's University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) has led to the UILO publishing a draft of a new global access strategy to guide the commercialization of future UBC discoveries. The UILO is currently seeking public feedback in order to further shape the guidelines "to ensure that they will be effective in increasing the social impact and global reach of UBC research discoveries." If you’re a supporter of “open access to innovation,” why not send them your input?