Not all scientists have access

There are some great tweets coming out of the Berlin Open Access Conference (hashtag #berlin11) this morning. But like always, there are a few people on Twitter and elsewhere who just don’t seem to get why we need complete and unrestricted open access to the scientific literature. I won’t go into detail about all these reasons here. I would just like to address one argument I hear a lot and why it’s wrong. It goes something like this:

The people who really need access to research are scientists, not the general public. Most scientists have access through their institutions. So, there’s really no need for increased access. Scientific articles aren’t hidden.

Putting aside for a moment how little you must think of the general public if you don’t realize they deserve access to research they paid for with their tax dollars, is it really true that all scientists have access? Absolutely not. When people claim this, they are making at least two tenuous assumptions. First, they assume that scientists work in institutions that can afford journal subscriptions. Many scientists, however, work in small universities, teaching colleges, or private companies that cannot pay the high fees charged by publishers. If wealthy universities like Harvard say they can’t afford journal subscriptions, imagine how many other institutions find the costs prohibitive. Second, they are often thinking of scientists working in developed countries. Even small universities in the U.S. have budgets exceeding some of the largest research institutions in low- to middle-income countries. Institutions in these countries struggle to purchase supplies and equipment needed to carry out experiments. Purchasing journal subscriptions isn’t an option. These scientists do not have access to a large percentage of the scientific literature. To them, these articles are hidden.

I’ll give you a personal example. I work for a large federal research institute in Mexico. We do not have subscriptions to many academic journals. The subscription fees are simply too expensive. From what I understand, we have very limited print subscriptions because they cost less than the electronic ones. But even those take up a single small bookcase in the library. The majority of the research literature is hidden to us.

So, how do we keep current? Some of us have affiliations with U.S. institutions that grant us access to the literature. Others ask friends for articles. Or, we email authors. Do we obtain the articles we need? Sometimes. But just because we eventually find something after upturning several rocks, does that mean it wasn’t hidden? Does that mean it’s acceptable that we don’t have immediate and unrestricted access? What about students who don’t have other institutional affiliations to rely on, or may find emailing authors (especially in a foreign language) intimidating? The scientific literature is hidden to them.

And it is not acceptable.

7 thoughts on “Not all scientists have access

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  1. A related aspect is that institutions often have a thematic focus that is reflected in whatever access they may have to the literature. This means that researchers working at the interface of that focal area to other fields will also miss out on large chunks of the literature they need.

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