You Paid For This Paper. Now You Can Read It Without Paying Again

There is probably very little among the topics covered here at Hackaday that doesn’t have its roots somewhere in scientific research. Semiconductor devices for example didn’t simply pop into being in Bell Labs or Texas Instruments, the scientists and engineers who created them did so standing on the shoulders of legions of earlier researchers who discovered the precursor steps that made them possible. As many readers will know, scientific research for its own sake is expensive, so much so that much of it is funded by governments, from your taxes. The research papers with the findings are then hidden from public view behind paywalls by the publishers who distribute them, an injustice which should soon be over for Americans, thanks to a White House memorandum paving the way for federally funded research to be freely available to the public at no cost by no later than 2025.

The academic publishing business originates in the days when paper was king, and it has several tiers. Officially an academic journal is usually the product of a professional body in its field, but it is normal for the publishing itself to be contracted out to a specialist academic publishing company. They accept submissions of papers, edit them, and arrange peer reviewers, before publishing the journals. Originally this was a paper process, but while journals are still printed it’s the Internet through which they are now read. The publishers pay nothing to the researcher for their paper and often only a nominal sum to the reviewers for their input, but charge a hefty subscription for access to the content. As you might imagine it’s an extremely lucrative business, so as this Hackaday scribe saw when she worked in that industry, the publishers and the learned bodies are in no hurry to kill their golden goose.

This move to open access may make few immediate waves outside the world of scientific publishing, but it affirms the principle that taxpayers should be able to see the fruits of their spending. As such it will be of benefit to less-well-off researchers and institutions worldwide. Rest in peace Aaron Swartz, if only you could have seen this day!

White House pic: Matt H. Wade, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Could India Be The Crucial Battleground For Open Access To Scientific Research?

One of the hottest topics in the world of scientific publishing over the last couple of decades has been the growing pressure to release the fruits of public-funded scientific research from the paywalled clutches of commercial publishers. This week comes news of a new front in this ongoing battle, as a group of Indian researchers have filed an intervention application with the help of the Indian Internet Freedom Foundation in a case that involves the publishers Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society who have filed a copyright infringement suit against in the Delhi High Court against the LibGen & Sci-Hub shadow library websites.

The researchers all come from the field of social sciences, and they hope to halt moves to block the websites by demonstrating their importance to research in India in the light of unsustainable pricing for Indian researchers. Furthermore they intend to demonstrate a right of access for researchers and teachers under Indian law, thus undermining the legal standing of the original claim.

We’re not qualified to pass comment on matters of Indian law here at Hackaday, but we feel this will be a case worth watching for anyone worldwide with an interest in open access to research papers. If it can be established that open access shadow libraries can be legal in a country the size of India, then it may bring to an end the somewhat absurd game of legal whack-a-mole that has raged over the last decade between the sites on their untouchable Russian servers and heavy-handed academic publishers who perhaps haven’t moved on from their paper publishing past. It’s time for a fresh start with the way academic publishing works, and maybe this will provide the impetus for that to happen.

For those wondering what the fuss is about, we’ve looked at the issue in the past.

Indian flag image: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA.

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!