Why research articles should be publicly accessible (Shulenburger 2009, PLoS Biology)
I cannot even count the number of times when I have been denied access to a journal article I needed. Oftentimes, it was while I was working on a paper in college and couldn’t read the paper that all the other scholars cited, or the paper that supported an argument I was trying to make. And this was despite the fact that I was at an academic institution that subscribed to many journals to allow its students access to research. Maybe, being a small college, the specific journal wasn’t chosen for subscription, or the particular year was unavailable. There are few things more frustrating!
And it only got worse over the summer when I was no longer in academia. Although unemployed, I wanted to try and keep up with the scientific world, but was often thwarted due to the fact that I had no money and couldn’t afford to subscribe to journals or buy individual papers.
I do understand why journals charge for access to their articles. To maintain rigorous review processes to keep a high standard for legitimate research, journals need to hire staff to organize reviewers and select papers for publication.
But it often seems contrary to scientific goals. We scientists like to believe that we’re in a community where we share information with one another, building off of one another’s discoveries, combining our minuscule projects together to create a larger picture of progress. But how can we do that if we cannot read each other’s papers and keep up to date on the onslaught of information coming out daily?
It’s a difficult balance — to keep scientific standards high but also make research publicly available.
David Shulenburger wrote an interesting piece in the open-access journal, PLoS (Public Library of Science), available here, addressing this subject. He suggests two different approaches.
The first follows the lead of Harvard, MIT and University of Kansas: research mandates. When a researcher from any of these institutions submits a paper for publication, they require that the copyright belong to the university, and that its immediate publication on the university website is permitted. This allows the universities to create databases with publicly-available articles from the school to help researchers locate collaborates within their own institutions, as well as provide a public list of the results and successes of these institutions.
Of course, this could create a disadvantage to researchers at these institutions. Unless most or all universities submit these research mandates, the journals could simply choose to accept non-mandated papers so that they themselves will hold the rights.
Shulenburger’s more inclusive suggestion recommends a general public access policy for all journals. This would mean that the journal could continue to charge for papers up to a year after their publication. While this would keep some scientists from up-to-the-minute details in their field, it would create an environment where a high-quality review process is supported so that scientific rigor is upheld, while allowing the public access to older papers, which arguably should be available for a true scientific community to exist.
As a careful observer of scholarly communications, I’m convinced that the public goods aspect of faculty research will ultimately compel public access to it. Public goods have the characteristic that use of them by one individual does not diminish their value to others. In fact, the knowledge presented through scholarship generally becomes more valuable as it is shared more widely and becomes a building block upon which further scientific advances may occur.