Thursday, July 12, 2012

What if...?

What if we did suddenly have open access to all technical literature? And by this, I mean that the publishers can still keep publishing just as many journals and articles as before and the quality is the same as before and...and...and...Basically the world is the same as before, except that you will never again see those disheartening words that "Your current credentials do not allow retrieval of the full text" or any of a number of equivalent messages.

I see plenty of people that want open access, and plenty of publishers that want to avoid it, but very little thought as to what would happen if universal open access did occur. Here are my thoughts:

The most significant change would be that people like me and hundreds of thousands like me in medium and smaller industrial settings around the world would have access to information that we did not have before. Importantly, this is information that we can use. We are capable of reading it, understanding it and using it. To use the words of one publisher, we are "qualified readers" (even as he argues that we aren't) [*].

With that sudden influx of information, does anyone not think that there would be a sudden increase in innovation? More innovative products like we've never seen before? And what would be the economic impact of that? More jobs?

I'm not saying that people in smaller companies are more creative than in large companies, it's just that we are not burdened by the slow pace that the large companies move at. We can run circles around them in getting things done. That's why when we get great ideas and develop them, we are snatched up by the big companies.

We already face many restrictions at a small company - lack of capital, equipment, manpower...and to propose a fantasy world where these restrictions would be magically removed is really too much to even imagine. But removing limitations on access to the latest scientific information is not that large of stretch, and would have tremendous benefits to the country and the world.

When I am speaking of innovations, I am not just thinking of disposable consumer products that the world can probably be just fine without. Here in the Twin Cities we have probably the largest number of medical device startup companies in the world. How many new live saving devices could this information generate? How much could efforts towards sustainable chemistry be advanced? Or new energy alternatives? Or improvements in food, or clean water or...

I am not and have never argued "Death to Publishers!". They provide an great service that should be compensated. But can that happen in alternative manners that allow for open access? And would that world be a better world than what we currently have? I would argue that that vision should be used to guide our way forward, not simply "Open Access? Yes or No?"

[*] The irony is that many of us in industrial settings provide the peer review for journals that we do not have access to. If we are qualified enough to review the paper, we are qualified enough to use it.


Slawomir said...

Full open access to anything levels the playing field. If my job depended on it I could find the $35 to buy access to a publication. This is harder to do if your company is in the developing world and aspires to develop its own products.

The free access to knowledge (and the ability to use it) would reduce another barrier to entry and increase competition faced by our employers.

This development be good for the world, and probably bad for jobs yours and mine.

This is just one of the paradoxes of progress.

Anonymous said...

I've not yet reviewed any manuscripts since beginning my gig in industry, although it has only been a year so far. I wasn't sure how common it was for industry types to provide peer review.

I think its relevant to point out that access to literature is an important resource for providing peer review. Yes, if you are being asked to review a paper, you are probably an expert in that field (or a related field) and can thus evaluate some general aspects of the research. But let's say that while they lay out the impetus for their research, they make some funny-sounding statement which is referenced to another literature article. How are you to fact-check without access?

Salomon T. said...

Thanks for writing up your thoughts on open access and experience with access to the scientific literature. I think it is a matter of degrees. Journal subscriptions right now are extremely expensive and getting a single article more so.

If articles were made available in more reasonable "literature plans" it would alleviate the problem a great deal. A company could tailor their consumption depending on their needs (Say x articles per month plan). The decrease in full journal subscription might be made up by the increase in small companies accessing content.

John said...


The problem is seldom just $35. It's multiples of it, and there's also the risk factor that the article may not be what you want. Then you've spent $35 (or a multiple thereof) that is lost. Well, you do have the article, and it may or may not be helpful in the future (assuming you can find it again, if you remember you have it).

I hadn't thought about the idea of leveling the playing field, and I don't disagree with it. In the same way that open access is eventually inevitable (see Tuesday's post) , the leveling will be inevitiable too.


It wasn't until I had this blog going that I started getting manuscripts, despite contacting editors directly. I can't tell you anything about how much of an oddity I am. Maybe an editor can chime in.

There are ways to get access to the literature too, although it is rather labor intensive. Directly contact one or more of the author(s), Google searches, and also checking directly the websites of the PI. Many PI's will have copies available, and some of these pages are just not easily found via Google.

Slawomir said...

In my ancient past behind the Iron Curtain a humble postcard sent to the PI usually resulted in a copy of an article in the return mail. I haven't tried this approach in a couple of decades. Perhaps an e-mail works better now?

I do get the n x $35 equation, and I did buy several articles (painful...) when I was particularly interested in a subject. I have used up my 25 free ACS papers and I am thinking hard about choosing the $12 discounted articles or the $500/250 articles deal. There is also the access to a library at the local state college.

Google searches have worked for me on a few occasions, but the time spent on this is precious.

Anonymous said...

Anon here again.

My question "How are you to fact-check without access?" wasn't meant literally. I agree that contacting the corresponding author (or visiting their website) is a pretty good way at getting particular articles. However, I was more trying to heap on John's point about publishers' use of industry experts as reviewers, even though these experts can have wildly varying access to literature.

John said...


I remember receiving the post cards, and they were always hard to ignore. Ignoring email? I can imagine that some profs get so many that they can't read them all, let alone respond. I will also try guessing at the email name for another author on the list and see if they will respond. As you note, this is time intensive.


No problem about the misunderstanding. It still gave me a chance to plug that post about some of the options I've discovered.

Slawomir said...

OK, I will try a blue/pink odd-shaped envelope addressed in a dark blue handwriting-like cursive font, with a personalized handwriting imitation letter printed on sheet from a yellow legal pad. Oh, a hand applied non-forever stamp and a free return address label from Firefighters' Association matter, too.

This approach used to generate near 100% response (in my alt-past). :)

Anonymous said...

I have been contacted several times regarding access to a review article I wrote with my old PI. Technically, I think the agreement with the publisher was that only the PI is allowed to post links to the *.pdf - one to a faculty page and one to a personal page.

In this case, my PI had links on his pub page - the folks who contacted me probably didn't think to look there before contacting me. Even though I had a local copy of the *.pdf, I sent them the link to my PI's pub page to avoid potential legal issues.

John said...


That is a great idea, but if you add a dab of French perfume, you will get 100% results.

Slawomir said...

Thanks, John. I knew I was missing something.... :)