We have a problem

Our governments spend billions on funding research. But most people don’t have access to it — including the taxpayers who ultimately funded the research.

Scholars, mostly funded by government money or charities, do the research. They write up their results as papers, format the manuscripts, prepare figures, and send them to publishers. Other scientists handle editing for the publishers (unpaid). Yet other scientists review the manuscripts for the editor (also unpaid). The result of all this is a honed and polished research paper. But all too often the publisher demands the copyright, and locks the research behind a paywall.

“So what?”, you might ask.  “I don’t want to read research papers.”

But don’t you want your doctor to read them?  How about your children’s teachers?  Your elected representatives?

The reality is that there are many groups that want and need access to the research that they and you funded.  Public access to scientific research makes all our lives better: it makes us healthier, better governed and better educated; it lets us live in a cleaner environment, a more civilised society and a healthier economy. When publishers lock away the results of research, it hurts us all.

On this site, we’ll talk to people in all walks of life who need access to research but can’t get it because of restrictive publishing practices.  Here are some of the people we’ll be talking to:

New interviews will appear in the “Recent Posts” area on the right.  Or you can look up different categories.

21 responses

  1. The building of knowledge is built every second by the contribution of the entire scientific community. Each of us, students and researchers, contributes a brick and so, this building has been evolving, growing, since the first man observed the behavior of an animal, the shape of a plant, the movement of stars. In recent decades, a building is being built parallel, however, a granite and ivory of this new building comes from the old. And we do not have access to it.
    It seems to me the story of the builder who built the school, but their children can not study it. It is clear that an elite (some countries) is guaranteeing the inaccessibility of most of us to knowledge.

  2. Polish academics sign a petition urging Polish funding agencies to require open access to publicly funded research publications at http://otwartymandat.pl/ (in Polish, use google translator to read)

  3. I edit Wikipedia on science topics, particularly on issues relating to clinical research. I also train PR staff and community editors to engage Wikipedia. Many people who participate in clinical research want to get information online about the nature of the research and the rights of study participants, but right now, I would assert that there really is not a way for people to get good information online on any website in any country about almost any clinical trial.

    I really cannot share a huge success story, but I can say that a lot of research institutions are exploring the possibility of being more engaged online. Since typing in almost any word into a search engine returns a Wikipedia article on the first page, many institutions are also starting to question the extent to which they should commit resources to maintaining Wikipedia articles since that is where everyone goes for layman explanations on any topic anyway.

  4. My wife works for the national ambulance service (not going to say which country) doing stats work trying to improve practice – modelling best ambulance geographic placement by time of day/week, setting benchmarks for time to patient in rural/urban environments – that kind of thing. I’m an academic at the local Uni. I had to get her listed as my research assistant here at Uni so she could get access to the paywalled articles she needs to do her job. Fortunately, my Head of Department is sympathetic and signed off on her RA position to get her library access.

    I suppose the solution is for everybody who might need paywall access to marry academics.

  5. I am an independent scientist, freelance science writer and a run a science communications business. Closed access affects me tremendously. Thankfully through contacts in twitter and the community I can gather the resources I need without paying the ridiculous fees demanded by publishers. Most articles I read through to note whether they are worth writing about or tagging in the list of topics I follow for future reference. My family & I would starve if I had to spend 20-40 dollars each time I wanted to understand an article deeper than the abstract.

    Yet, even though there is a demand for the services I provide among many organizations, if I factored in the costs for access I would price myself out of many contracts. Even article “rentals” for much cheaper would not help if they were articles that I would keep needing to go back to reread for various reasons. I read dozens of articles every day and would read more if I could access more!

    Closed access is a direct threat to entrepreneurship and for those research works paid for by public funds (state, federal, or otherwise), I contributed to funding those results. Me and my business cannot afford to be double-dipped by megapublishers making profits hundreds of times more than I could ever dream to earn!

  6. Students are sold this big idea of joining the university network and being given access to all of these online journal article resource libraries. Only when we get here, we are told that the university only has access to certain journals, for certain years, and cannot always promise it will work unless you’re on a university-based computer. We pay a fortune, are told we should not have opinions and should base our concepts on our analyses of the work of others (at least in year 1 and 2), and then we are prevented from accessing said work. While many may think we have access to resources, even at a top 5 university, we do not.

  7. juliusbeezer | Reply

    I think it’s worth logging here that according to the Chronicle of Higher Education JSTOR turns away 150 million individual requests for access each year.
    JSTOR (“journal storage”) is a non-profit collaboration serving academic libraries that makes digital editions of 1289 journals available online.

    1. Another way I consider the government missuses the funds is by spending the funds on projects that are not helpful to the economy. Most of the money is spent on charities that don’t support the well-being of the economy.

      1. That may be true, Ted; but it’s a separate problem for a separate site to address. (In any case, most people would argue that the purpose of charities is to support the wellbeing of people, not of the economy.)

  8. The interests that keep academic research closed are intimately tied up with large corporate publishers, individual academic careers, all university rankings and all aspects of research assessment and funding. In 1996 The Electronic Libraries Programme in the UK tried very hard to shift the culture. (I contributed as as assistant on one project). Publisher prices are now causing huge damage to Libraries (and to their University scholars when titles have to be cancelled) . Many Universities do run accessible archives of (some) staff publications. Stevan Harnad (Southampton) and others have tried very hard to change normal practice, but vested interests have provided plenty of reasons for the majority to not bother. An old petition languishes here: http://www.ec-petition.eu/

    Perhaps it’s time to start a Pirate Bay to do to academics what the world has done to musicians – liberate the best and destroy the merely average. It would probably be better to start by controlling publisher oligopolies and being more creative with access costs. If open access were declared tomorrow there would be some major earthquakes in the University sector.

  9. Absolutely right. You should add journalists to the list of people you will be talking to. Science journalists (and journalists in general) can get pretty frustrated about the current lack of accessibility to science papers. (Although universities are pretty happy when the media trumpet their new discoveries, often based only on press releases…).

  10. What legal ramifications would there be if everybody posted a load of material on sites such as Scribd?

    1. Andrew McLeod asks: “What legal ramifications would there be if everybody posted a load of material on sites such as Scribd?”

      I really don’t know. I’m afraid that for obvious reasons we can’t condone copyright violation.

  11. A Member of the Public | Reply

    and what about ‘lay’ people checking out research for themselves, instead of trusting pre-digested edicts? Check out http://nccam.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/coldflu-science.htm#echinacea: NCCAM claim ‘doesn’t work’. Yet, on the same website, though hard to find: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17597571 – excellent results presented in Lancet-published meta-study. I could cite several more examples from around PubMed. Perfectly ordinary people need access to study data. Until the day when we can be sure that arbiters of information have no vested interest in presenting a particular view… closed access = disempowerment.

  12. I’m an ‘independent’ researcher. I made a new ‘model’ of the business economy by creating an ecology matrix out of Yellow Pages data. I learned much about how the economy works this way. I could have worked faster and smarter if I’d had access to research papers. Fortunately I had the tenacity to continue without having access to much research material or getting academic friends to break copyright.

    Out of the process I did end up writing some papers for journals on what I found in research. One of the papers I won an award for…. but I can’t read that paper because I don’t subscribe to the journal!

  13. Hi I’m a 44year old female with Dercums disease & am desperate to find SOMEONE here in Australia that has any knowledge of this illness. I have been to numerous Doctors with all symptoms & find that none seem to have the slightest idea about the disease or who to refer me too. If you could please give me any specialists or help groups I would be eternally grateful. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Sorry, Kim, no-one who runs this site has any specialist medical knowledge or ties to any specialists or groups. The best we can do is to leave this comment here in the hope that someone relevant sees it. Best wishes.

      1. Thank you very much, fingers crossed someone will be able to offer some information. I appreciate your prompt reply. 🙂

  14. The classic hacker/cracker motto is/was “Information *wants* to be free.” It turns out though that going in and trying to just *take* it is not a good plan:
    So I support your efforts here. Unlike what William Gibson would have had us belief, going in and just *stealing* data is not a viable long-term solution. So we need to go the slow, methodical due-process way and get the laws changed.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  15. Most university graduates don’t go into academia, yet they are familiar with using journals. I’m one such person, and I read dozens of open access papers on a wide range of topics each year, usually because something has sparked a personal interest, or because I need a source for a blog article, comment or argument, or I’m suspicious that someone has misused a source. But the most common experience is the frustration of only seeing an abstract, and my finances can’t justify spending around £20 for the possibility that I’ll find what I need behind the paywall.

    The web is full of conspiracy theorists, religious apologists, pseudo-science proponents and so on, who would have a free ride spreading misinformation if non-professionals didn’t have access to credible and detailed sources with the latest research to debunk them. Professionals with paid access rarely have the time and inclination to do so.

    Many times I’ve gone into London just so I can read papers in the British Library. Luckily I live quite close, but others are not so lucky.

    1. Thanks for sticking with it, Greg. I think about people like you every time I hear some privileged academic or publisher insisting that there is no access problem, that the people who need access have it.

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