Man working on wind turbine design on his computer.

Clean energy: why free access to scientific research is key

15 November 2023

The article at a glance

Open-access publishing by the US Department of Energy has led to a significant rise of citations in new patents, says new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Faster development of new clean energy technologies is essential for achieving a net-zero emissions economy. A new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School suggests that this effort is being boosted through an open-access publishing policy of the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Paul Lohmann.
Dr Paul Lohmann

The DOE in October 2014 began mandating its 17 National Laboratories (NLs) to publish all its peer-reviewed scientific articles without a paywall, meaning they are open to everyone without requiring a subscription – and this provided a ‘rare natural experiment’ for examining the effect of such non-paywalled research. The study published in the open-access journal iScience describes these NLs as the crown jewels of energy innovation in the US.

Scientific articles made freely available are quoted 42% more in patents  

The results: based on data from more than 300,000 scientific publications, the study found that articles subject to the open-access mandate were used on average 42% more in patents, although these articles were not cited more frequently by other academic articles.

The primary beneficiaries were small firms, with below-median patent portfolios, which tend to struggle more with exploiting knowledge from far and wide. These smaller firms cited NL research around 50% more compared to articles not subject to the DOE open-access mandate.

Why removing the paywall allows greater equality for smaller clean-energy firms

“Research scientists from large firms or universities have greater awareness of and access to knowledge from outside their immediate areas or sectors, but small firms lack this advantage,” says study co-author Paul Lohmann, a Research Associate at the El-Erian Institute of Behavioural Economics and Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School. “So we think the findings are particularly encouraging for smaller firms, and these smaller firms are important players in clean-energy technology.”

The study differentiated, when a patent cites a scientific article, between the ‘front’ and ‘body’ of the patent. Citations at the front are more likely added by patent lawyers, and the study found no statistically significant rise in such citations, while citations in the body of a patent are more likely to be included by inventors – and these citations increased on average by 42% in the post-2014 period. The open-access mandate did not, however, affect the number of academic citations. This did not surprise the researchers as academics typically have access to journals through their universities.