Guerilla open access, public engagement with research, and ivory towers

by adamgdunn

Despite the growth of open access publishing, there is still a massive and growing archive of peer-reviewed research that is hidden behind paywalls. While academics can reach most of the research they need through library subscriptions, researchers, professionals and the broader community outside of academia are effectively cut off from the vast majority of peer-reviewed research. If the growth of file sharing communities transformed the entertainment industry more than fifteen years ago, is a similar transformation in academic publishing inevitable?

Together with Enrico Coiera and Ken Mandl, I published an article today in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. In the article, we considered the plausibility and consequences of a massive data breach and leak of journal articles onto peer-to-peer networks, and the creation of a functioning decentralised network of peer-reviewed research. Considering a hypothetical Biblioleaks scenario, we speculated on the technical feasibility and the motivations that underpin civil disobedience in academic publishing.

It appears as though academics are not providing pre-print versions of their article anywhere near as often as they could. For every 10 articles published, 2 or 3 can be found online for free, but up to 8 of them could be uploaded by the authors legally (this is called self-archiving, where authors upload pre-print versions of their manuscripts). Civil disobedience in relation to sharing articles is still quite rare. Examples of article-sharing on Twitter and via torrents have emerged in the last few years but only a handful of people are involved. There it not yet a critical mass of censorship-resistant sharing that would signal a shift into an era of near-universal access like we saw in the entertainment industry in the late 1990s.

However, as the public come to expect free access to all research as the norm rather than the exception, it might be more likely that the creation of an article-sharing underground will come from outside academia. What is unknown is whether or not the public actually want to access peer-reviewed research directly. From the little evidence that is available on this question, it seems that doctors, patients, professionals of all kinds, as well as the broader community might all benefit from the creation of an underground network of article-sharing, and it may even serve to reduce the gap between research consensus and public opinion for issues like climate change and vaccination, where large sections of the broader community disagree with the overwhelming majority of scientific experts.

Given the size of recent hacks on major companies, there appears to be no technical barriers to a massive data breach and leak. However, by removing the motivations behind a Biblioleaks scenario, publishers and researchers might be able to avoid (or skip over) a period of illegal file-sharing. University librarians could build the servers that would seed the torrents for pre-prints, helping to ensure quality control and improving the impact of the research in the wider community. Researchers can and should learn the self-archiving policies for all their work and upload their manuscripts as soon as they are entitled or obliged to do so. Prescient publishers might find ways to freely release older articles on their own websites to avoid losing traffic and advertising revenue.