Mike the Mad Biologist

One of the things I can’t stand about non-open access publishers is that federally-funded scientific results (federally subsidized in multiple ways) are locked behind a publisher’s for-profit firewall. Given the high prices of journals and universities’ need to cut expenditures, library budgets are getting slashed.

So what’s a scientist to do? Have a colleague whose institution has a subscription send her the pdf of the article.

Needless to say, this upsets the non-open access publishers greatly. UR STEALIN TEH SCIENTISMZ!! Over at Ars Technica, John Timmer makes a good analogy to reprints that some of us old timers (who remember such things) will appreciate:

There is, however, an alternate way of viewing this that the author doesn’t discuss: at least some medical professionals are apparently unable to obtain the publications they feel are needed for their training or practice; given their job responsibilities, it seems unethical to withhold these materials.

In addition, it’s worth noting that, although this sort of informal sharing would be obviated if all research was open access, it has a very different history from the formal open access movement. For many years, it was traditional for anyone publishing a paper to order a stack of what were termed “reprints”–essentially the journal article without the rest of the journal’s contents–from the publisher, in order to share with colleagues or anyone who was interested, but did not have access to the journal. With the advent of digital publishing, this sort of service shifted to the emailing of PDFs–in a lot of ways, the file sharing seen here could be viewed as the next logical step in this publication sharing process.

If publishers were smart, they would hire a really smart IT person, and figure out how to give authors permission to post, send around, or otherwise distribute a certain number of pdf licenses.

Non-open access publishers would still bother me: it’s not their fucking science, it’s the country’s (even if many of our fellow citizens have no interest in it). But this might slow down the move to open access, which would seem to be in the publishers’ interest.


  1. #1 MRW
    November 8, 2009

    “If publishers were smart, they would hire a really smart IT person, and figure out how to give authors permission to post, send around, or otherwise distribute a certain number of pdf licenses.”

    Some journals now send the authors a link to a freely accessible pdf, and tell them it can only be accessed X number of times. They make it sound like this is enforced by some form of technology, but I’ve never tested the limit.

  2. #2 Anon
    November 8, 2009

    Most papers exist in a form that is almost exactly the same as the published version but not quite done yet. I have one such paper that was actually supplied by the publisher, in which case there is zero diff between this copy and the published version. Anybody can have a copy of that paper free. Free of legal liability, guilt, or money.

    Also, publishers require that authors sign a document makenig this whole copyright thing happen, but they are accustom to authors being late in sighing it. If you findyourself in the position of the paper being in print and this document not signed yet, just don’t sign it. (this does not always work)

  3. #3 oscarzoalaster
    November 8, 2009

    Geee…..a Napster-like network would be perfect for this….. and really really hard to shut down.

  4. #4 Janne
    November 9, 2009

    For copyright to be transferred, payment in kind generally must happen. The default is for copyright of anything to stay with the creator and transfer can only happen under some rather specific circumstances (work for hire, for instance). If a publisher were to sue a scientist over passing papers to colleagues I’m not at all sure that the court would even agree that the journal owns the copyright, transfer agreement or not. Which may be why no journal to date has ever tried to actually enforce such restrictions in court.

  5. #5 mm
    November 9, 2009

    In astronomy (also physics and math, but I can only speak directly about the astronomy scene), we *all* use the fantastic http://arxiv.org/ as our de facto universal preprint server and open-ish access portal for our publications, regardless of journal. Want to check the latest in astronomical research? Go to arxiv. Not the print journals, not the various journal online presences. arxiv. Many if not most of us have a personal policy of not posting to arxiv until at least after the refereeing process, but all of us post our papers, at some point, on arxiv. Thus, even though our library budget has been shredded in the last ten years or so, we still have access to most of the papers we need in order to continue our research — just not via the mostly-evil for-profit shitheads, even though the papers are formally published in their journals. It’s a life-saver for increasing numbers of astronomers around the world who don’t have the big bucks needed to access the expensive journals. I don’t know if something like arxiv could be done in the biomed world, but you might want to look into it. (BTW, I work at a U.S. Govt. institution. If *we* don’t have the budget for the major for-profit journals, whose obscene prices continue to skyrocket, I can just imagine how the mid- and small-university libraries are faring these days. Disgraceful, to say the least.)

  6. #6 CBA
    November 10, 2009

    Of course publishers would (and do) argue that they too need to eat. and that it is the editorial operation and the journal platform which is worth the subscription. I simply don’t agree. If publishers start offering much more for the money (useful ways to use journal information such as aggregated databases) then the pill wouldn’t be so bitter. (almost) Everyone pays taxes which indirectly allow government sponsorship of research only for that research to be hidden behind a USD15,000 subscription. Elsevier for example have a profit margin of close to 50 percent from journal products.