Aren’t academic papers too hard to read?
Too hard for who? Most (not all) academic papers are pretty specialised, which can make them hard for non-specialists to read. But that doesn’t make them useless to the public. To pick one obvious example: your doctor has the background to read medical research, but probably doesn’t have access.
And papers vary. Bright high-school science students shouldn’t have too much trouble following the arguments of papers like Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals, even if they don’t understand all the details and ignore the citations.
In the end, it’s for readers to decide whether or not a given paper is “too hard” for them; it’s not for publishers to decide ahead of time, and use that as an excuse for not allowing access.
But the people who need access already have it.
This is an argument sometimes made by senior academics at well-funded universities with wide subscriptions. It may be true that there is a tiny proportion of researchers who have all the access they need. But there are multiple issues with this:
- Who says academics are the only people who need access?
- Even good universities don’t have access to all the papers they need: for example, the University of Bath, named as the “University of the Year” for 2011/12 by The Sunday Times, doesn’t have access to the Royal Society’s Biology Letters.
- Even when access is possible, navigating through paywalls is often cumbersome, misleading and time-consuming.
- Even when researchers have access to read research, they often don’t have access to use it in other ways, such as text-mining and indexing.
We are a long way from the fully open access to research that we need.
What about military research?
That kind of research isn’t published at all, so no-one is suggesting that is should be made freely available.
If military secrets were published in non-open journals, a $35 access fee would hardly deter the people who we don’t want reading them. The only way to keep them safe is not to publish.
Why isn’t publicly funded research already free to the public?
It does seem crazy. But this is a historical accident.
Before the Internet, the only way for papers to be read around the world was by having publishers print and distribute copies. Since each copy cost the publisher money to make and deliver, they quite reasonably charged for each copy.
But now that we have the ability to make any number of copies and send them anywhere in the world instantaneously, each copy distributed is free. Publishers still have costs, but these are incurred up front, in handling the manuscripts and getting them into their final form.
Some new publishers, such as the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central, charge accordingly. Their costs are met by article processing charges (APCs), which are paid by authors from the grant money their projects receive. (Fee waivers are offered for authors without grants.) But most older publishers, too used to the old model, are resisting the change. They continue to charge for each access — even though accesses are zero-cost (or so close to zero that they can’t be measured).
Although it’s unwise for publishers to cling to an obsolete business model, it’s not unfair: after all, it’s their choice to run their businesses how they choose. What is unfair is for these charges to hinder access to research that was publicly funded in the first place. (In practice, this is the vast majority of published research.) This is why some public funding bodies (such as the NIH in America) have public access policies which grant recipients have to follow.
Won’t publishers starve?
No. At least, not if they adapt to a business model that makes sense in an Internet-enabled world.
But, really, it’s publishers’ job to make sure they are providing a valuable service to the public; not the public’s job to prop up publishers that insist on an obsolete business model. Those that can take the step into the 21st Century will do well. But if others have to close down because they insist on erecting artificial barriers to access — well, we won’t shed too many tears.
Can I reuse material from this site?
Yes, absolutely! Except where noted, the interviews on this site and all other text is by the @access working group. All content is furnished under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License (CC BY 3.0). This means that you are free to re-use it anywhere, in any way, so long as credit is given. Exceptions are noted on the page where they occur.
We ask that you let us know when you re-use anything from this site; but that’s only a request (because we’re interested to see what people are doing). You don’t need our permission.
Any other questions?
Please feel free to leave a comment below, asking any other question you may have. (Honest questions, only, please, no polemics. There are places for debate over academic publishing reform, but this is not one of them.)