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).
  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: 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.