Universal access to peer reviewed articles?

Scientists without access to libraries that subscribe to scientific journals, or whose institutions are poorly funded, are cut off from the mainstream of research developments.  That is, unless they request offprints of papers from authors.  The growth of electronic versions of journals and increasing access to the Web, even in poor countries (Eritrea recently went “on-line”) seemed to promise wider availability of primary sources of research information.  That is an illusion.  Unless you are a subscriber to paper journals (for instance Nature and Science subscribers automatically get free access to on-line versions) or are registered with a library that has subscribed to all electronic journals made available by a publishing house, such as Elsevier’s Science Direct, then downloading more than an abstract is on a pay-per-view basis.  (Note:  even the Web of Science, that hosts the Science Citation Index database, requires a paid-for user id and password).  Being a university academic in a rich country, I have the luxury of free access to many electronic resources through the Open University Library’s subscriptions, and the same goes for any of our students.  However, the economic facts of academic life occasionally rear up.  A reference to an interesting paper in the Journal of Human Evolution came to my attention.  Using my id and password for the publisher’s web site, I was able to locate the entry for the paper.  However, we do not subscribe to that journal, and to download an Adobe Acrobat PDF file would have cost me about £35, charged to my credit card.  Instead I requested an offprint from the authors, and am still waiting for its arrival after 2 months.

Authors provide papers free of charge to publishers of journals, referees review submissions without payment, and many editors compile issues for little if any return, other than satisfaction and kudos.  Publishers of journals make enormous profits, and increase subscriptions at rates far above that of inflation (one veterinary science journal increased in price by 7 time between 1991 and this year).  The average total income received by publishers of the roughly 20 000 scientific journals for each one of the 2 million papers published each year is around US$2 000 – the trade has a US$4 billion annual income.  In the Earth sciences annual subscriptions are beyond the budgets of most 3rd World institutions (6 issues of Elsevier’s Journal of African Earth Sciences cost £1003), apart from a few (the University of Chicago’s Journal of Geology costs £79 per annum).

The Public Library of Science  – http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org -is campaigning for a way out of the increasing cost for freedom of access to scientific information.  One simple and foolproof strategy is for authors to “self-archive” their preprints and manuscripts of published papers in their institutions’ “e-print” archive in such a way that they can then all be harvested into a global virtual archive, its full contents freely searchable and accessible online by anyone.  Stevan Harnad of the University of Southampton is one of the driving forces for the self-archiving initiative, and provides full details of the possibilities at http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Tp/nature4.htm

See also:  Harnad, S.  2001.  First Person: In the name of freedom.  New Scientist, 26 May 2001, p. 53.

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