Serendipity in Research: Let's Not Leave It to Chance

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E-Content [All Things Digital]

Nick Shockey is Director of the Right to Research Coalition.

There has always been something serendipitous about the progress of research—the right person coming into contact with the right ideas under the right circumstances. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to meet Jack Andraka, perhaps the most exciting example recently of the right person connecting with the right idea.

Jack's revelation came during his freshman biology class. A family friend had recently passed away from pancreatic cancer, instilling in Jack a desire to improve the chances of those affected by the deadly disease. While his teacher lectured on antibodies, Jack covertly read a scientific journal article on the practical application of carbon nanotubes. The teacher ended up catching Jack and confiscating the article; however, Jack had already made the connection between nanotubes and cancer detection—a connection that would seed his future breakthrough.

Jack would go on to invent a novel diagnostic for pancreatic cancer, winning last year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair at the age of fifteen. Jack's diagnostic uses carbon nanotubes to detect the overexpression of a certain protein that is used as a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. The test takes only 5 minutes and costs about three cents, making it 168 times faster, 400 times more sensitive, and 26,667 times cheaper than ELISA, the current diagnostic. His test is so sensitive that some in the field speculate it could save thousands of lives each year by detecting pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages, when the disease is much more treatable.1

Jack's story is a vivid illustration of what can happen when we empower anyone with drive, curiosity, and an Internet connection to cutting-edge research publications.2 Yet Jack was fortunate to be able to get access to the full text of the articles he needed. Without a college or university to pay for the often-expensive journal subscriptions on his behalf, Jack was left to build from those articles that he could find freely available online, which he said he used "religiously."3 I can't help but wonder how his story may have ended if a few critical articles had eluded him behind a paywall.

In his difficulty accessing research, Jack's story is not unique. In fact, it's all too common. A survey by the Research Information Network in 2009 found that over 40 percent of researchers in the United Kingdom could not readily access the licensed resources in their own libraries—particularly academic journals—on at least a weekly basis.4 With the ever-rising expense of journal subscriptions, this result is hardly surprising. The 2013 Periodicals Price Survey conducted by Library Journal found sixteen academic disciplines in which the average price for an ISI-indexed journal was more than $1,000 per year.5

We have become accustomed to hitting paywalls. Instead of questioning these barriers when we encounter them, we now either move on immediately or go through the time-consuming process of getting around the paywall—by e-mailing the author, by submitting an interlibrary loan (ILL) request, or, perhaps most creatively, by tweeting the article's author and title or its DOI (digital object identifier) with the hashtag #icanhazPDF. Workarounds have become so commonplace that we hardly even notice we're using them.

The problem is that these workarounds, even when they're successful, introduce a significant amount of friction to the research process. Researchers bother to e-mail the author or submit an ILL request only if they feel the result will be worth the hassle. Often, however, an article that does not immediately seem to be the most promising turns out to be the one that ultimately has the largest impact for the research. It's impossible to say how often this friction comes between researchers and an article that could have productively influenced their work or even led to a major breakthrough. The official version of the paper that Jack was secretly reading in his biology class—"Carbon Nanotubes: The Route toward Applications"—still requires a subscription to access.6 Luckily, Jack's Google search revealed a number of copies posted in full online. What if they hadn't been posted? What if Jack had just moved on? In a guest blog post on the White House website, Jack addresses this point directly: "When I was working on a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer, there was one key paper . . . but imagine if I didn't have access to that paper. I might never have had the idea that led to my success. That to me, that is the fundamental problem with scientific journals: they prevent the democratization of innovation."7

Even though he has yet to publish his first peer-reviewed paper, Jack is speaking out in support of open access, of the idea that all research articles should be made freely available online immediately upon publication, with full reuse rights. Quoted in the Vancouver Observer, Jack said: "My research should serve as a testament to free online research (...) It was hard to get what I needed without the costs. People should take note and because of this project, we should make a move toward more inexpensive or free Online research."8 In June of this year, Jack was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change for Open Science for his breakthrough cancer diagnostic. At the award ceremony, Jack announced his plan to continue pushing for free, online access to the research literature and to engage his fellow students in doing so.

As a student advocating for open access, Jack is far from alone. In 2009, a group of six student organizations came together to form the Right to Research Coalition (R2RC) to represent the student voice in the discussion around the future of scholarly communication. Today, the R2RC comprises 70 student organizations, representing nearly 7 million students in more than 100 countries around the world. Its members have already made a tangible impact on policy discussions related to open access, advocating for policies that will unlock the world's scientific and scholarly output for anyone to read and build upon. Students, as the next generation of scholars and researchers, are playing a larger and larger role in shaping the future of the system of scholarly communication they will inherit.

Together with librarians, researchers, progressive policymakers, and countless others, Jack and students like him all around the world are creating real change. Serendipity is good, but we're determined not to leave research to chance.

  1. Bruce Upbin, "Wait, Did This 15-Year-Old from Maryland Just Change Cancer Treatment?" Forbes, June 18, 2012.
  2. For more on the role that open access played in Jack's discovery and that it can play in advancing research more broadly, see the June 2013 interview of Jack Andraka by Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health.
  3. Quoted in Massoud Hayoun, "How Aaron Swartz Paved Way for Jack Andraka's Revolutionary Cancer Test," Vancouver Observer, January 29, 2013.
  4. Research Information Network, "Overcoming Barriers: Access to Research Information Content," December 2009.
  5. Stephen Bosch and Kittie Henderson, "The Winds of Change: Periodicals Price Survey 2013," Library Journal, April 25, 2013, table 4.
  6. Ray H. Baughman, Anvar A. Zakhidov, and Walt A. de Heer, "Carbon Nanotubes: The Route toward Applications," Science, vol. 297, no. 5582 (August 2, 2002), pp. 787–92.
  7. Jack Andraka, "Open Access: The Pathway to Innovation," White House Champions of Change Blog, June 20, 2013.
  8. Hayoun, "How Aaron Swartz Paved Way for Jack Andraka's Revolutionary Cancer Test."

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 48, no. 4 (July/August 2013)