I’m tired of being prevented from reading academic papers because of subscription walls. Both as a student and someone who loves to dig into the history of science, I often cast a wide net when I’m searching for information on a topic I want to know more about. At this very moment, for instance, I’m taking a break from writing a chapter of my book about birds and dinosaurs. In doing research for the chapter, I have come across a number of references that have been hard to come by, one of which is Alick Walker’s 1972 Nature paper “New light on the Origin of Birds and Crocodiles.“
Rutgers, however, does not have a subscription to Nature, and so when I click the “Download PDF” link I get a page asking me to either subscribe to the journal for $199 or buy the paper itself for “$amt.toString().” Not very helpful. So my alternatives are to either ignore the reference (something I don’t want to do), purchase the paper (which I can’t afford), or beg for it from someone who has access (please?). I don’t enjoy making myself a nuisance, and I find it puzzling why I should have to shell out substantial sums of money for a paper over a quarter of a century old.
It can be even more frustrating when dealing with much older material. Many journals guard old that should be accessible to anyone behind subscription walls. My research on the work of T.H. Huxley is a perfect example. Many of Huxley’s papers relevant to the topic I was studying were contained in the Lyell Collection of the Geological Society of London. My university does not have a subscription, nor could I afford pay-per-view access to the papers I needed (a similar thing happened when I tried to get some papers by E.D. Cope for the same project). Thanks to some kind friends I got some of the resources, but it puzzled me why I should be blocked from downloading scientific papers from the 19th century.
Fortunately for me, Google Books provided an alternate route. While unheard of today, during the 19th and early 20th centuries the entire scientific works of particular researchers were often collected together in a series of volumes. Such was the case with Huxley, and the books containing his complete work were available for free download. With a few clicks I had all the resources I could need without charge (the books are so old copyright no longer applies), and my research was made much stronger as a result.
Had I not had access to the volumes via Google Books, however, my research would have been made much more difficult. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to complete it, and I certainly would have made some errors I only realized when I found additional papers. The various subscription walls stifled my progress and often frustrate my efforts to learn. Indeed, it may very well be that some historical misunderstandings are a result of the inaccessibility of old papers. In the case of Huxley, nearly everyone cites one or two particular works when discussing dinosaurs and the origin of birds, but no one seems to be aware of his larger body of work on the subject. This is partially due to citation copying, I’m sure, but it may also be related to the fact that his work is not freely available unless you know where to look.
Journals need a source of income to operate, and a large part of that comes from subscriptions and pay-per-view fees. Yet I have to wonder how running academic publications this way might constrict science. How many times have you been looking for a particular paper that would have helped your work only to find that it was behind a subscription wall? If it seems to be a little importance, perhaps it is easily crossed off the list, but what if that paper contained some information or idea that could make an important difference in your research? Several times I thought I understood something only to find what I knew contradicted by a hard-to-find paper, and I wonder how subscription walls might force some work to become more obscure or mis-referenced.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but as a student, I think open access publishing is extremely important. If I were not currently attending college I probably wouldn’t have access to the smattering of journals I can keep up with now. When I do leave college, how am I going to obtain important new papers if all of them require me to shell out exorbitant sums? I won’t be able to do it. Indeed, it is strange that for all our talk of wanting the public to better understand science we keep it locked away from them. Not everyone is going to look at and digest scientific papers, but how many interested people are we preventing from cultivating an interest in science by requiring a substantial “entrance fee”?
While I think open access has the potential to enhance communication and discussion between professional scientists, I think it is of even more important to students and people who want to learn more about science independently. I could not have learned all I know now if I didn’t have access to scientific papers, and reading them is a major part of my continuing self-education. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard, and opening access to students could help foster not only greater interest in science, but help students start writing their own papers. I see no harm in providing anyone who is curious the ability to see for themselves, and I hope that more publications take this point of view.