The cost of accessing papers in scientific journals could be stifling research and innovation.
Although most universities have complete (or near complete) journal access rights, the cost of multiple journal subscriptions is simply too high for startups and SMEs. The typical cost of accessing a single article is £20 to £40 ($30 to $60) but pay-per-article costs can quickly escalate. A single paper might easily reference dozens of other papers, and it might be necessary to access several of them. In turn, it might be necessary to access a number of the articles referenced in each of those papers, and so on.
Researchers who are respectful of copyright and without blanket journal access ultimately have to choose between taking a significant financial hit or depriving themselves of potentially useful information.
Sequestering peer reviewed data behind pay walls is increasingly seen as an unacceptable barrier to knowledge, particularly when the majority of published scientific research is publicly funded (at least in part). Some subscription journals do allow individual articles to be made open access, but the authors of the paper (or their funding bodies) must pay a premium; charges over £1000 ($1500) are commonplace. The popularity of websites from which pirated copies of academic papers can be downloaded, e.g. Sci-Hub, is therefore not surprising, but it is also not ideal.
The news that a group of EU science, innovation, trade and industry ministers have called for all publicly funded scientific papers to be freely available to the public by 2020 (reported below) was therefore enthusiastically welcomed by startups and SMEs, even if the timeframe is probably unrealistic.
In the meantime, enormous amounts of data are already freely available in the form of published patent applications and granted patents. Patent documents are sometimes a forgotten source of scientific information. Although patent applications are not peer reviewed, they often include the same data as later journal articles from the same authors.
Readily searchable databases of published European, US and PCT patent documents are available online, for instance Google Patents, FreePatentsOnline (particularly recommended for the variety of search parameters that can be combined), the EPO’s Espacenet and WIPO’s PatentScope.