Thursday, January 21, 2010

Open access isn't the same as free access (#scio10)

There is one point from the discussion following our ScienceOnline2010 presentation that I want to elaborate on. This is the way in which credentialism excludes amateurs. This is a problem that I face.

The internet has made accessible vast amounts of literature for much wider audiences than ever before. Many of the original sources that I have been able to use in my research would not have been available to me just ten years ago. Many early journals existed for only a few years, in very small numbers. To read them, I would have had to travel to major libraries in Europe and the Eastern states, which would have been prohibitively expensive. Once at those libraries, I would have needed to get access to their rare book collections, which would have been very difficult since I lack an institutional affiliation. Because of Project Gutenberg, Google Books, and the efforts of many libraries I can now read these works online and, in may cases, view scans of the actual pages without traveling.

My point about lacking an institutional affiliation is very important. Most of the people at ScienceOnline2010 were associated with some kind of university or research institution. It was so taken for granted that they put it on the name tags, as if the affiliation was part of their name. I'm sure that it is standard practice at all professional conferences to assume the attendees are all in that profession. However, this was not a scientists' conference; it was a science communicators conference and communicators were defined as including bloggers who just happen to like science. Many attendees commented that it would have been useful to put peoples' blog aliases or online avatars on their tags along with their names. However, I didn't hear anyone suggest that these identities should have been put on the tags in place of their affiliations. Lacking an institutional affiliation, I put down my wife's home-craft soap business, just to have something to fill in the blank.

The wonderful era of online access, which I mentioned above, is already facing counter-pressures to close it back up. The attendees were all familiar with the problems of modern scientific journals. They are ungodly expensive to purchase and many libraries don't have all of the relevant titles to their research. Many journals are beginning to address these problems by putting their content online, allowing institutions to purchase subscriptions that give access to the members of that institution wherever they are. That's great for them, but a barrier to everyone else. As an alumnus of the University of Washington, I'm supposed to have the same access privileges to library resources as do current students. The catch is that those privileges do not extend to internet access. To read journals, I have to go to the library. That's not a problem for people who work at the University, but, to someone who does not work there, it means making a special trip to read any given article. In those who do not work on or near a university library, the internet revolution has changed nothing.

Many of the journals who have put their content online do allow laypersons to access their articles, but we have to pay by the article. The prices range from ten to forty dollars per article with no consideration for length. Scientific research articles are usually quite short; one article I want is three pages long and will cost me forty dollars to view. For current research articles, I need to determine if it is relevant to my work without actually seeing it first.

The pay-per-view firewalls deprive an historical researcher of important context. The Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society are a perfect example of this. A few years ago they began posting online scanned images of the pages of their entire run. These were treasure to me. Whenever I went looking for an article, I browsed the entire issue to get an idea of the intellectual context of that one paper. This was not only useful, it was a lot of fun. In my presentation, I mentioned letters from landowners about natural oddities discovered on their land. As recently as the late 1700s, the Proceedings printed letters as trivial as someone finding a turnip in the shape of the Prime Minister's head. Priceless!

Last spring, with the scanning complete, the Society turned management of the digital archives over to JSTOR, a for-profit institution. Most of the attendees at our presentation were not even aware of the change. Because of their institutional affiliations, nothing had changed for them; they simply go online and read whatever they want. For me and people like me, it costs ten dollars for each article and letter unless we make a special trip to the University library.

As I mentioned in the presentation, the professionalization of the scientific world was a great thing in many ways, but, along with breaking down some barriers to the free exchange of ideas, it created new barriers. It divided the scientific world into two classes, active practitioners and passive spectators. Threats and barriers to the free and open access of ideas are not limited to censorship and social pressures; sometimes they are as simple as cost and distance.


  1. Thanks so much for a well written and interesting commentary post conference. I'm not sure I heard a solution to the issue of how to give open access when it's obviously expensive to provide such. Do authors of scientific articles retain the right to send that article to others if it is specifically requested from them? (Remember the paper postcards that we used to receive from those who didn't have journal access?) If authors aren't retaining that right.... then why not?
    Regarding conference badges, I'm personally in favor of leaving the affiliation off of the badge. One of many reasons is what you mention. The other is that then the name might be in larger print!
    Thanks so much for posting and for your enthusiasm for science.

  2. In terms of conference affiliation, there's no reason why an individual couldn't put a piece of paper with a blog handle in a plastic badge holder and add it to the official conference paraphenalia.

    On the cost and institutional access thing, you're absolutely right, but I suspect this will sort itself out in about ten years (or, if I'm wrong, it'll all go to hell in a handbasket, which is just about equally likely) as more journals (even old sources) go open access and commercial journals and copyright holders see their IP value decline due to disuse.

  3. Seconding @nshepherd! As a professional who is NOT affiliated with a university, this is a frustration for me, too. One of the things I like to do on my blog is research reviews, but I am limited to journals that are completely open-access or to which I have paid for a subscription (the latter group currently comprises one journal: Science). I read others' reviews of interesting research, or the summaries of interesting articles in Science or Science News, but I am unable to access the original source because I don't have a subscription. Many university libraries will let you browse their print journals within the building even if you have no affiliation with the university, but you typically can't access online journals even within the library without a university-supplied access code or username. And even being able to browse print journals is not helpful if you don't live convenient to a university library, or if the library doesn't have the journal you need.