Access Denied

Cross-posted on Sci-on-the-Fly hosted by AAAS Science and Engineering Policy Fellows

“Dear List, does anyone have access to this article?” A simple request posted to a list serve of scientists and policy makers. Someone suggested she try Sci-Hub; another sheepishly suggested; until someone else pointed out the illegality of those sites. One essentially suggested the author find her own damn article, even if it means paying for it. Eventually the list settled into a discussion about access; and about the scientific haves and the have-nots. Literature is our lifeblood. Quotes and citations and names and dates fill the chapters of dissertations, the paragraphs of research papers and review articles and reports. Who did what first; how many others confirmed; where did it go wrong; the controversies; the methods; the findings; interpretations and conclusions. What is lacking? And maybe most importantly, where next?


Jesus College, University of Oxford (author photo)

Access to scientific literature looms large, particularly for those of us working on the edge or outside of academia and even for many of those within. I am particularly sensitive to the situation, in part because I work in fear of losing the access I’ve enjoyed for the past twenty years. Which is part of the problem. Too many of us haves, have no idea how stifling lack of access is for the have nots. For much of my career I have worked obstinately, proudly and maybe sometimes too stubbornly outside of mainstream institutions – but I have enjoyed a non-teaching adjunct position with my local university for which I have been extremely grateful. I could not have done this for so long without access.

I am not alone. After the list-serve hullabaloo – I surveyed the list and elsewhere seeking experiences other than my own. Many like the Ronin Scholars are independent scientists; doing the work they love, outside of the Institution. Some are retired, or recent grads, or mid-career scientists. Basically all over the career map. Many do not have the access they need.

Access, wrote one respondent is “vital.” Without it writes another, “I would be lost”. “It is fundamental.” “100% essential.” You get the picture. But this we all know. Access to science, is what enables science.  If we, as a scientific community, care about strengthening our community – particularly outside of academia — if we care about retaining scientists, then we must all care about access.

“One of the four canonical ‘norms of science’ identified by sociologist Robert K Merton in the mid-20th c. was communism or communalism – open sharing of methods and results,” writes Brent Ranalli, a friend, colleague and student of science history. I had asked him about the role of knowledge sharing in science.

“Merton’s reputation has waxed and waned, but he did put his finger on something. If you look back to the 1600s, one of the big changes that marked the scientific revolution was a greater open-handedness. Whereas alchemists viewed their knowledge as esoteric or as a trade secret, chemists tried to be as transparent as possible. Scientists in different countries coached each other through reproducing experiments. The first scientific journals were written to spread news of experiments and observations as broadly as possible. For some participants, there was a millenarian religious aspect to this—doing God’s work by spurring scientific participation and collaboration and innovation that would lead to a Golden Age.”


Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, England

Now, as we enter the Golden Age of information and technology – somewhere, somehow, this scientific information increasingly became locked away behind paywalls. Creating a system of scientific Haves and Have-nots, as university libraries become gateways open to those with the right netIDs. As increasing numbers of us wander from the academy, whether working for non-profits, as high-school teachers, writers or god-damn independents – we risk losing access to this trove of essential data. And the larger scientific community, I think, risks losing us along with all the time, and money and knowledge it took to train us.

Some, sell themselves in exchange for literature: “….maintaining an institutional tie for this purpose,” writes one researcher – a DVM, PhD epidemiologist, “is part of why I started adjuncting and it’s been a little soul killing at times…I am very sympathetic to those without access since I could be in those shoes at any time.” She wasn’t the only one to write about adjuncting in exchange for the netID. As I fear losing my own position, I even considered (in a fit of desperation) offering a course for free, in exchange for the benefits of access. Others tap into their spouses, friends, past graduate students’ accounts (if they’ve moved on to a better endowed university) even their kids’ university accounts!  It is a demeaning way to maintain a career, and not only that – it isn’t exactly kosher. Which brings up article-sharing.

After the initial ask, some suggested emailing the authors of the desired paper. But that, according to the small slew of survey responses, can take weeks, and more often than not, doesn’t work. Similarly ResearchGate, which one respondent called the “spammiest social network on the planet,” (and here I would have to agree … my box is filled with ResearchGate’s version of click-bait which makes you wonder about their view of the vanity of scientists’) isn’t a sure fire way to find what you can’t find. There is Open Access a great innovation that comes with its own set of problems; like the two to three grand that some Open Access journals charge authors. You could chase your tail in circles here. Independents can’t afford to pay for articles and so seek out Open Access but can’t afford to publish their own work. Journals have always had page charges – some will waive charges and not all Open Access journals charge (see here) – but a recent query by an author invited to publish an Open Access special collection to waive fees, was quickly denied by parent publisher, Springer. And the NIH requires articles be posted, but some publishers have up to a year before articles become available. In fast-paced fields – which many are these days – that is too late. Of course you can always buy what you need for twenty or thirty dollars a-pop.


Image Courtesy of The National Center for Science Education


Writes one researcher who works for a nonprofit, “My organization purchases the article from the publisher, up to the limits of my budget. $500 per year.” That is roughly twenty to thirty articles a year. Others use just available abstracts. Writes one scientist turned science-writer, “lack of access can lead to bias in sourcing. I hate to say it, but sometimes we have to cite the sources we can access over the ones we can’t.”

For the past six years I’ve been writing reviews and more recently books (a sort-of extended kind of literature synthesis, with, for what it’s worth, attribution to my local University.) Literature synthesis is my science. And there is plenty out there to be synthesized – as long as it’s accessible. But hundreds of citations (not including the paper trail that often leads one to just the right citation) would quickly translate into a few thousand dollars; roughly equivalent to the total royalties.

Cost isn’t just an issue for those beyond the Ivy Gates of Access, it’s an issue for those within too:

Wrestling with an 85% increase in the cost of journal packages – an infographic for George Washington University has “Scholarly resources are not luxury goods. But they are priced as though they were,” scrawled across its top. According to the graphic an annual subscription to my go-to database, the Web-of-Science is equivalent to the median price of a single family home. If you want to be appalled by the cost of sharing our hard won efforts in the laboratory consider the estimated 35% profits margin of some scientific publishers. And if that’s not enough, read this article, on the profitable yet “unethical business of publishing medical research.”  (If you are curious about the cost of publishing, see here.) These are profits made by restricting access to our work – often work that is funded by our taxes (those of us who pay our taxes.) As one respondent put it, “as citizens we are paying for the research multiple times over.”

Which brings me back to Sci-Hub the site developed by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan (who has since been sued by publishing giant Elsevier.) The site where you can get just about any paper. Who uses Sci-Hub? According to this article by John Bohannon in Science, everyone. In just six months the literature-hungry public downloaded twenty-eight million papers. From Iran to China to the U.S. of A, “The geography of Sci-Hub usage generally looks like a map of scientific productivity, but with some of the richer and poorer science-focused nations flipped,” writes Bohannon. And here in the U.S. users tend to cluster around academic hot-spots, New York City, East Lansing, Columbus Ohio– suggesting even those with the right netIDs are turning to Sci-Hub.

One colleague who works at a small university says she used Sci-Hub to access her own papers now behind a paywall inaccessible by her institution. I felt bad, she says. But should she? Usually when papers aren’t available she does the “can you access this article,” email to friends, past students and colleagues at bigger better endowed universities.

Another respondent set up his own paper request site. Gene Bunin, hasn’t had access for three years. An “optimization” specialist, Bunin runs, sort of like internet dating for literature; or those who don’t want to keep bother their colleagues with a “do you have…” email. You ask for a paper, someone with access finds it and sends it. “I use it ….when I cannot get access with my other resources – the other resources being SciHub (effective 90% of the time), ResearchGate (effective almost never)…the author (effective about 25% of the time), and using my alumni alma mater access (effective rarely).

While other experiences with these sources may vary, Bunin pretty much sums up the options, aside from shelling out to the publishers.

The access issue is only the tip of the scientific iceberg, and I’ve got plenty of thoughts about science and how it is done, by whom and where but will save that for another post. But for now, here is Ranalli again:

In the early modern era, scientists were mostly gentlemen who pursued science as a hobby, and they volunteered their time to research and write and they subscribed to the scientific societies and the journals. When science moved into the university, the research and publishing was a sort of pro bono activity subsidized by professional teachers and their employers. Today, most research is no longer pro bono and the publishing isn’t either. There is a danger of science become an activity for a professional elite. Merton would say that goes against the essence of science. At best, it excludes voices who could provide valuable contributions and it slows down progress. At worst, it makes possible the sort of corruption that professional elites are capable of perpetrating.

When you are in the “flow” of writing, hitting the paywall is like hitting a brick wall. Particularly for independents who don’t really have anywhere else to turn if they want to keep their literature seeking kosher.

And while this is a problem for scientists, as Ranalli suggests, it is also much bigger than us. “I just want to scream,” writes Kendra Zamzow who works for the Center for Science in Public Participation, “when scientists wring their hands about how the ‘public doesn’t understand science’ and about the trend towards anti-science in this country – yet they nearly completely block access to scientific information. Most people cannot afford even one expensive science journal.”

“That access is diminishing at a time when information is everything,” adds Susan E. Campbell “not only for degrees and research but for all kinds of gainful endeavor, seems downright antisocial.  It is also seriously anti-innovation.”

The access issue touches all of us. From the cancer patient wanting to read up on her disease to the community organizers whose groundwater is tainted with solvents, the seaside city planner wanting the latest climate change models, and the high school student looking up at the stars. In this information age – how is it that the cutting edge information driving everything from cancer to climate change research and what we know about the moon and the stars and the planets – has become available only to those with the right netID’s? We need solutions now. A new way to share the ever increasing reams of scientific information. A way to share the wealth. Science for all.

Thank you to all those who volunteered their thoughts on this topic. I keep thinking there is no need for yet another blog/article/commentary on access – but clearly that is not the case. 

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