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

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.

Do people outside of universities want to read peer-reviewed journal articles?

I asked a question on Twitter about whether or not people actually tried to read the peer-reviewed journal articles (not just the media releases), and if they encountered paywalls when they tried. This is what happened:

[Click on the time/date to see the conversation]

In case you don’t want to read through the whole conversation, it turns out that every person who answered the question said that they have in the past tried to access peer-reviewed journal articles, and that they have been stopped by paywalls. Some said it happened all the time.

There is very little evidence to show the prevalence of access and blocked access by the “interested public” for peer-reviewed journal articles. Some people seem to assume that only other scientists (or whatever) would be interested in their work, or that everything the “public” need to know is contained in a media release or abstract.

I think the results tell us a lot about the consumption of information by the wider community, the importance of scientific communication, the problem with the myth that only scientists want to read scientific articles, and the great need for free and universal access to all published research.

So far, I’ve been collecting whatever evidence I can get my hands on to relate to this question, especially in medicine, and I’ll add these pieces one by one below, just in case you are interested.

  1. Open access articles are downloaded and viewed more often than other articles, even when they do not confer a citation advantage. This is seen as evidence that people not participating in publishing are accessing the information.Davis, P.M., Open access, readership, citations: a randomized controlled trial of scientific journal publishing. The FASEB Journal, 2011. 25(7): p. 2129-2134.
  2. A Pew Internet Report found that one in four people hit a paywall when searching for health information online. Perhaps more importantly, that 58% of all people have looked for health information online (and in a country where only 81% use the Internet).
    http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Health-online/Part-One/Section-9.aspx
  3. From a UNESCO report on the development and promotion of open access: “First, it is known that [people outside of academia] use the literature where it is openly available to them. For example, the usage data for PubMed Central (the NIH’s large collection of biomedical literature) show that of the 420,000 unique users per day of the 2 million items in that database, 25% are from universities, 17% from companies, 40% from ‘citizens’ and the rest from ‘Government and others’.”Swan A. Policy guidelines for the development and promotion of open access, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2012, Paris, France. (Page 30). Available at:  http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/resources/publications-and-communication-materials/publications/full-list/policy-guidelines-for-the-development-and-promotion-of-open-access/Of course, people accessing PubMed Central from domestic IP addresses might often be academics working late at night at home without a VPN (like I am doing now).

About fifty people responded to my question on Twitter. I realise that my audience is probably biased towards the highly-educated, informed, younger, and information-savvy, but I think there are clear and obvious groups of people outside of universities who would be interested in reading published research. These people include doctors, engineers and developers, parents of sick children, politicians and policy-makers, practitioners across a range of disciplines, museum curators, artists, and basically everyone with an interest in the world around them. That this aspect of open access hasn’t been the feature of many surveys or studies seems bizarre to me.

Perhaps most importantly, I think we need to know a lot more about just how often people outside of academia want to access published research, and if problems with access are stopping them from doing so.

Surely the impetus to move towards universal and open access to published research would grow if more academics realised that actually *everyone* wants access to the complicated equations, to the raw data and numbers, and to the authors’ own words about the breadth and limits of the research that they have undertaken.

How to do work-life balance: learn to say “no”

I wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Higher Education Network, all about the power of “no“. The piece was designed particularly with early-career researchers in mind, but there might be some resonance for researchers at other stages of their careers, and maybe even more widely.

I always struggle with turning down requests, which tends to make for an interesting, diverse, and very tiring career. I have absolutely enjoyed getting involved in a range of unusual and interesting research (and other) projects in the last six years but it has come at the cost of balance in my life. I’m pretty sure that I will continue to struggle with balancing work and whatever else it is that people are supposed to do when they are not working. At least writing about saying “no” has made me think about my own internal mechanisms for saying no.

In case you missed the link to the article I wrote, here it is: “Early career research: the power of ‘no’

On open access – practical issues

Upulie Divisekera, prolific tweeter and all-around awesome scientist, wanted to write a thing about open access and was nice enough to ask me for some help. The result, which you can find on Crikey and read for free, captures the costs of publishing and the avenues through which journal publishers make obscene operating profits.

Long story short, it’s because the publishers have convinced academics to give them all their work for free, as well as do the quality assurance tasks. Then they charge the same communities of academics to access them, or they actually charge authors to give them their work for free in the first place. And through all of that, the costs of publishing have probably decreased because everything is online now, instead of in actual printed books that sit in libraries gathering dust. When we think about it like that, it doesn’t make the academics seem very smart. And it’s kind of true. I’ll explain why…

In case you didn’t catch the link to the article, which proved to be quite popular, then here it is.
Why science doesn’t belong to everyone (yet)

After the cost of knowledge became a thing, more and more of mainstream academia started to think about the open access movement and started to jump on the golden bandwagon. Essentially, open access just shifts the costs of publishing from the library to the scientist, but the money comes from the public either way, so I personally don’t see how this sort of shake-up will have a direct effect on the actual cost of knowledge.

There’s a simpler approach that should be considered the responsibility of every research academic considering the submission of a piece of research. And that is to check the self-archiving rules for each journal. It turns out that most of the decent journals to which we might consider submitting work allow researchers to upload pre-prints (yellow) or post-prints (blue/green) already (some after a delay), and most of them will publish your work for free. The journals that don’t give researchers the ability to self-archive are a small enough proportion that they are easily avoided without having to sacrifice readership, impact (and yes, your choice of journal does matter) and good old-fashioned prestige.

And then just let Google work its magic.

Soon enough, your pdf is available as one of “All X versions” on Google Scholar, and will be linked directly to your institutions’ (or your own) webpages. And if you are looking for an article of mine that is “behind a paywall”, google it first before you start bitching about it on the internet because the post-print version is available at the click of a button.

So why aren’t people doing it properly already?

Because it’s not new. It’s not a buzz word. Blue and green coloured-things might not as desirable as gold. But it is important. And if you’re a researcher, you owe it to the public to know it and get it right, on time, every time.