Gain Access To Science Two Ways

Not a hack, but something we’ve been wanting to see forever is open access to all scientific publications. If we can soapbox for a few seconds, it’s a crying shame that most academic science research is funded by public money, and then we’re required to pay for it again in the form of journal subscriptions or online payments if we want to read it. We don’t like science being hidden behind a paywall, and neither do the scientists whose work is hidden from wider view.

Here are two heartening developments: Unpaywall is a browser extension that automates the search for pre-press versions of a journal article, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are denying rights to research that it has funded if the resulting publications aren’t free and open.

The concept of “publishing” pre-print versions of academic papers before publication is actually older than the World Wide Web — the first versions of what would become shared LaTeX version of physics papers and ran on FTP and Gohper. The idea is that by pushing out a first version of the work, a scientist can get early feedback and lay claim to interesting discoveries prior to going through the long publication process. Pre-prints are available in many other fields now, and all that’s left for you to do is search for them. Unpaywall searches for you.

Needless to say, this stands to take a chunk out of the pocketbooks of scientific publishers. (Whether this matters in comparison to the large fees that they charge libraries, universities, and other institutional subscribers is open to speculation.) The top-tier journals — Nature, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, and others — have been reluctant to offer open access, so brilliant scientists are faced with the choice of making their work openly available or publishing in a prestigious journal, which is good for their career.

In a step to change the status quo, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took their ball and went home; research funded with their money has to be open-access, period. We think that’s a laudable development, and assuming that the foundation funds quality research, the top-tier journals will be losing out unless they cooperate.

To be fair to the journal publishers, many journals are open-access or have open-access options available. The situation today is a lot better than it was even five years ago. But if we had a dime for every time we try to research some scientific paper and ran into a paywall, we wouldn’t be reduced to hawking snazzy t-shirts.

Thanks [acs] for the tip!

56 thoughts on “Gain Access To Science Two Ways

  1. So, the Gates Foundation is advocating the ideal that many have fought for, and Aaron Schwartz died for. This is good news, and definitely improves my opinion of them and their work.

  2. If it was publicly funded, then there is no doubt that it is criminal to hold it behind paywalls. Thanks for the tip on the browser extension and info on the Gates foundation. Good to know that sentiment is changing and that we may soon get access to those papers. At least half of them should be reproducible.

    1. That’s the thing. A lot of applied (and some pure) research isn’t strictly “publicly funded”. It’s public and private, and some is purely private. Kind of hard to disentangle that without ruining the research.

    2. This also applies to the law. We pay our legislators to make laws that we can’t see unless we pay to see them. All laws that we are expected to live up to should be on line.

  3. It’s complicated, though. There’s no easy answer.

    Is moving to a pay-to-publish model, where each individual research group has to pay thousands of dollars in page charges or other publishing fees, really any better than the university library buying a single site-wide subscription?

    Now, instead of each institution paying that subscription once, every research group is paying it over and over again, redundantly, in page charges – money that could be spent on a stipend for another PhD student, or spent enabling a grad student to travel to present at a conference, or stocking up on reagents, or whatever.

    Before people started making a fuss about open-access journals, the huge problem that we have now with predatory trash publishers didn’t exist – it was created. We have that huge proliferation of shit there, too.

    If the publishers get their money from readers, after the high-quality research has been curated and filtered out, then they have an incentive to maintain quality standards, to keep the readers coming back. If the publishers get their money up front from the people submitting the articles, then they will take anybody’s money, they don’t care about readers, and editorial standards reduce the profit, not increase it.

    Have we really achieved anything?

    “the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are denying rights to research that it has funded if the resulting publications aren’t free and open”

    So what happens to a young researcher who is producing high-quality work, very novel high-impact stuff that is capable of getting a publication in *Science* or *Nature* ? If their work is capable of getting a foot in the door at that level, do you then just tell them no, *you’re not allowed to*, or else you lose your funding survival?

    That seems wrong. What does that do to the career advancement prospects for early-career researchers?

    1. I think the point is that the current situation of certain journals being considered prestigious, motivating top researchers to publish their work through said journals, allowing to those journals maintain their high prestige, and thus giving them power to charge money to view the publications, is a cycle that can be broken.

      If you force top researchers away from these journals, then it will either push the top researchers into the open science community, strengthening the community so that a critical mass can build, or, it will pressure the journals themselves to be more open.

      As for the young researcher with awesome research who can’t get published in his career-making prestigious journal? That situation only applies when the harmful cycle of prestige continues. If you break the cycle then it’s a moot point.

      1. The first thing that needs to happen is that the open-access journals must be committed to high standards.
        Yes, they must always be rejecting 90% of the submissions. If they want to compete with the prestigious journals, then they must actually compete at that level.

        But even then it can’t happen overnight – Nature has 100 years of head start.

        1. I see huge problems with both the existing system and your solution.

          Firstly, the publish/don’t publish shouldn’t be a binary choice. It should be publish, publish criticism, publish rebuttal. Everything should be published. That’s how we get to see it all, people can’t be silenced, and good science can be judged by all, impartially, for themselves.

          Secondly you mention quality. Quality can only occur with the open system I described. Otherwise there is always a bias, even if it’s the bias of “prestiguous” “high quality” know-it-alls. Science is about being able to replicate results, eliminate bias, and declare all variables and their certainties. I see only one way that can be achieved:
          publish, publish criticism, publish rebuttal, free access for all.

          In the digital age, publishing is not expensive. A single non-profit could bear the cost. Look at how many already exist in the wild.

          1. I would like to add, that if “prestigious” journals were really about “quality”, then they could simply charge for their list. Charge for access to know whether a study is “worth reading”. Pay for the detailed expert analysis of why a study is good or bad. But the study itself, should just be hyperlinked. On this beautiful thing called the web. There should be a copy “published” on the digital library of the university or org who did the research, and there should be a digital copy in every single library around the world that wants it. For free. Cause why not? Science is worthless unless it is free. We are one species trying to advance as one. Proprietism has no place in science.

      2. You are a good researcher doing good work. Are you going to publish in a high ranking, closed journal or shoot yourself in the leg and publish in a open source, low ranking one?
        The thing is, from the inside, things are different – most researchers have access to most stuff they need (sure a lot of money is paid for that) so they would not jeopardise their worth by going for something open. The average joe looking to read that would not understand it anyway.
        I am not saying the publicly funded research should not be open, but it should not come at the expense of losing the selectivity and exclusivity that high ranking publications offer. It could be a simple rule that you should be allowed to have it on the website of whoever researched it after x time (maybe 1 year).

        1. If you live in the US or Europe.
          There are countless examples of researchers working in other regions being unable to access closed journals, either due to the access fee or strained relations between their country and the country where the publisher is based. 3k USD is a huge amount of money for a subscription even in the US, remember that an institution may have 15 different subscriptions, and $35/ article isn’t really practical since abstracts aren’t always as helpful as they should be. A graduate may need 100 articles from different journals for their thesis/dissertation, researchers may need cite 20 for a single article.

          I agree that all-open may not be practical and there’s certainly significant mark-up by the Journals but the current solution is locking amazing research in the ivory tower.

    2. The part that’s been left out is that many of these journals are now profit centers for large publishing conglomerates or other profit-making interests. Previously “page charges” covered actual costs of providing physical journals at modest cost to a professional society’s membership but that’s out the window. So, page charges (that are now profit margins) go up, subscriptions (that are profit margins) are exorbitantly expensive and the publishers defend their product (which is a profit center) tooth and nail.

      “Nothing personal, it’s just business.”
      -Otto Berman, mob accountant.

      1. I’m sure there’s price gouging at many journals but what are the actual costs?
        Hosting a massive repository that’s expected to always be up and available at high download speeds across the planet (though with an assumed focus to North America and Europe).

        1. I suspect the average $20 for a single paper is a bit above the actual cost. When I was working on my master thesis, I ended up purchasing a few papers, but the cost added up quickly.

          Now, when a SpringerLink result comes up in a google search, I start swearing.

      2. This is how Murdock made his money. He noticed there were way more people trying to publish than the existing journals could handle. He launched a massive publishing business to create loads of new scientific journals. The predictable outcome has been great masses of crap science get published and cited as legit. And cross-cited and become houses of cards. The demand for referees went up and the quality of referees went way down. In the the world of everyone gets a trophy, everyone gets published.

        This is the main reason older scientists are quite skeptical about most new research, especially research that gets political attention. It used to be really hard to get published for a reason.

  4. Here in the UK, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (the main governmental funding body for the physical sciences) now runs a system where researchers are obliged to publish open-access, but the publication fees are covered by a special budget allocated to each university. This works well for ensuring that public-funded research is published open-access.

    On the other hand this system exacerbates the lack of real competition between major publishers, allowing them continue to to operate with very high profit margins. With the money being used for open-access publication fees coming from an ‘invisible’ central budget, there is no real mechanism for ensuring value-for-money. Fundamentally, the final decision on where to publish lies with the researcher (as it should), but now the cost of publishing does not factor into that decision. As an EPSRC-funded researcher I love the fact that I can publish open-access easily, but I do worry that in the long run this might cost the research councils a lot more than it should.

  5. I seem to recall Aaron Swartz trying a similar approach.

    Also, why the (*&!£(*&£ hasn’t everyone who paid for a paper simply uploaded it, anonymously as an encrypted file with a well known but obscure key to Wikileaks?
    Call it “ScienceLeaks” or something :-)
    (my favourite method: use a realllllly old film and send simply the ISBN hashed with the .vob file name and offset via text message on my ancient GSM only Motophone V3. Simplez!)

    1. Me too, I admire his early beginnings then I disliked his Microsoft world domination thing but he seems like is genuinely trying to change the world for the better.

        1. To date he’s given away the GDP of Panama with plans to give away +90% of his net worth on his death. Given the math behind interest rates & investment it’s more beneficial for him to manage it until his death than to simply take a vow of poverty.
          He may be trying to buy his soul back but it’s not exactly pocket change, even to him.

          1. @Leithoa: How much is that 10% of 90 billions that you say will be keeping? Does that 90% “given away” lower his taxes?

            For these megarichest people, after the 1st billion the rest is pocket change.
            Although surely anyone else would feel the same after just the 1st million.

      1. Yes and no. Consider most philanthropy: it is purely an ego buying more ego which will live on after the buying ego croaks and Gates is an egomaniac. If he were that concerned with purely the funding/research/results then it could have been called something like ‘The Free Science Foundation’ or some such but folk like Gates love to get their name emblazoned across the sky. It is far easier to be a philanthropist when one has shitloads of cash; he gave f**k all away when he was raking in the microspasm cash. The greatest gifts are those that come with the highest cost to the giver.

      1. Very much depends on the University.
        You may have to visit the circulation desk to get a guest log in but if it’s a public or especially state University at least one of the campus libraries should be open to the public. Even if you have to buy a membership places like Stanford have a day pass (after you’ve used your 7 day free passes) at $10 so if you download 4 articles you’re coming out ahead.
        Oftentimes just being on the guest wifi might suffice since you appear from the Universities IP to the journal publisher. Unless their IT folks have taken extra measures. MIT famously has free wifi, though in light of Aaron Swartz they may have locked down journal access.

  6. Access to current science keeps the home inventor up to date. If we let Marketing control our access to information then all of us here who have been long-time Hackaday followers and tinkerers will forever be at the mercy of “amateur” or “hobby-level” kits and supplies along with information. I personally strive to be at the cutting edge of information, to dream of whats at the edge of the horizon.

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