Raising the barriers: restricting access to scientific literature will hurt STEM education

This morning, I learned that congress wants to reverse the advances made by NIH and go back to restricting access to scientific publications. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (New York) and Congressman Darrell Issa (California) are co-sponsoring a bill to restore the limits on public access to NIH-funded research.

I've written many times before (here, here, here, and here) about the challenges that community college faculty and students have in getting access to scientific papers.

In an era where the economic benefits of educating students in science are well-known (1), the idea of crippling science education by cutting off access to the primary literature is puzzling. If anything, I would expect congress to support science education by asking the National Science Foundation (NSF) to follow NIH's lead and require that publications from NSF funded research be made open access, too.

Instead, bill H.R. 3699 will roll back the NIH Public Access Policy and block similar policies at other federal agencies. The effects would be horrific. 

Maloney and Issa might not be aware of this, but faculty and students at 1,167 community and technical colleges will be negatively impacted by this bill (2). Many community college faculty rely on open access materials. Not only are these publications important tools for keeping our understanding current, we rely on these publications to help educate our students.

How we use primary literature in biotechnology education
Unlike the faculty in research universities, many of the instructors in community college biotech programs are scientists with backgrounds in the biotech industry. These instructors routinely assign scientific papers as part of their courses since they are training biotechnology technicians and industry technicians are expected to be able to read this type of literature.

Industry advisory boards also encourage the use of primary literature. At Austin Community College (Texas), students use research articles to design and write experimental protocols. At Shoreline Community College (Washington), students in the Molecular Biology course give presentations on research papers. I also refer students to the primary literature in my bioinformatics courses. And I draw extensively on primary literature when I design instructional materials and learning activities. 

Our educational practices will be severely impacted by restricting access to the literature. If we're required to purchase individual articles, often priced at $30 each, we will either have to end these practices or consider becoming Internet pirates sailing on the good ship Napster.pdf.

Some of my experiences with the problems of accessing primary literature
Twenty years ago, as a new college instructor, I was thrilled when PubMed became free and my students could start reading abstracts on-line. I still spent hours photocopying and organizing papers for student presentations and research projects but having access to abstracts was a great beginning.

Not only did I want students to learn how to scientific papers, I wanted them to understand the difference between the primary literature and the articles you might read in the newspaper or popular magazines like Discover or Wired. I wanted students to see for themselves how some details might get left out, how the same details could be presented in different ways and multiple groups might arrive at different conclusions.

My instructor colleagues and I were especially happy when NIH began to require that NIH-funded research be open to the public. Now, we could get papers ourselves and we could start requiring our students to read papers, too. Even some of the high school teachers I know started asking students to use PubMed and skim papers on topics like genetic disease.

Doing the hard thing isn't always easy
In the days when research papers were pay per view, many of us shied away from assigning primary research. After all, it's not realistic to expect students to spend $30 to download a single article, when we know large numbers of students skip buying textbooks because of the cost. 

What?  Why didn't our students go to the library? Community colleges don't carry many journals since subscriptions are often too expensive.  As a faculty member, we were told not to request journals since our library was prohibited from ordering them.

A science instructor's task is made even harder since research articles are notoriously hard to read. Nevertheless, as instructors, we have an obligation to help students develop their reading skills. When our students don't have access to the materials we want them to ready, this goal gets all the harder to achieve.

An unequal education for all?
Restricting access to the primary literature will have a negative impact on access to science education. According to the American Association for Community Colleges, 43% of all undergraduates attend community colleges. For the minority students, who attend college, these numbers can be even higher (2). Consider as well, that students, including those who become science teachers, take many of their science courses at community colleges. 

What benefit could there possibly be to society for congress to take away what might be the only chance these students have to learn how to read and critique scientific papers?

If we want to promote STEM education, why handicap faculty and students by prohibiting access to the tools?


1.  Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadell, 2010 21st Century Skills

     See http://vimeo.com/17092060 for a great talk on STEM by Charles Fadell.

2.  American Association of Community Colleges 2011 fact sheet (pdf)

More information

Learn more about the role of community colleges in science education:

1.  Linnea Fletcher and V. Celeste Carter, 2010, The Important Role of Community Colleges in Undergraduate Biology Education.  CBE Life Sciences Education.

2.  George Boggs. Growing roles for science education in community colleges. Science 2010;329:1151-1152.

Jonathan Eisen has a nice summary of links regarding HR3699.  

And the White House has a request for information (RFI) on public access.  If you want to respond to this, please hurry.  The deadline for commenting is Jan. 12, 2012.

You can find a summary of the RFI here.

And the entire RFI here.


- Janet Stemwedel has posted a great article at #SciAmBlogs summarizing the meat of the bill:

"The Research Works Act: asking the public to pay twice for scientific knowledge."

- An interesting conversation on the bill between @timoreilly and congressman @DarrellIssa was posted by Alex Howard (digiphile) at Storify.


More like this

"Research Works Act H.R.3699:
The Private Publishing Tail Trying To Wag The Public Research Dog, Yet Again"



The US Research Works Act (H.R.3699): "No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that -- (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work."

Translation and Comments:

"If public tax money is used to fund research, that research becomes "private research" once a publisher "adds value" to it by managing the peer review."

[Comment: Researchers do the peer review for the publisher for free, just as researchers give their papers to the publisher for free, together with the exclusive right to sell subscriptions to it, on-paper and online, seeking and receiving no fee or royalty in return].

"Since that public research has thereby been transformed into "private research," and the publisher's property, the government that funded it with public tax money should not be allowed to require the funded author to make it accessible for free online for those users who cannot afford subscription access."

[Comment: The author's sole purpose in doing and publishing the research, without seeking any fee or royalties, is so that all potential users can access, use and build upon it, in further research and applications, to the benefit of the public that funded it; this is also the sole purpose for which public tax money is used to fund research.]"

H.R. 3699 misunderstands the secondary, service role that peer-reviewed research journal publishing plays in US research and development and its (public) funding...


Thanks Stevan,

Sorry you got caught by the spam filter.

At the end of the day, the user-fee model of a reader pays is far more efficient and fair than requiring all taxpayers pay for free access to something that 99.9% of people don't want/wouldn't understand.

This debate has been and continues to be an astroturf campaign on behalf a small group of technologists that want their legacy to be that of "opening access" (read: demanding free access) to a set of journals that only they and their peers can understand. Well, them and the schools that would love to pass the fee for publications to the taxpayers. For the patient community, all this does is take grant money away from actual research, cost shifting it away from affluent researchers and well-endowed institutions. Meanwhile, most large publishers have policies that if a patient requests an article, they are granted free access to it anyway.

No STEM education will be hurt by the proposed legislation. Instead, you will continue to have access, just not free access (like most things in life and your education). Much like a museum - it might have been built with public funds, but there is an efficient and fair user fee on only those folks that choose to use the facility.

Stop asking everyone to pay for your trips to go see the dinosaurs.

By Just saying (not verified) on 09 Jan 2012 #permalink

You're wrong about the consequences of restricting access. There are many publications that I can't access now.

I don't think many people would object to user fees if they were reasonable. If publishers used a model like iTunes, for example, we would pay for papers.

Right now however, the situation is really bad. Access to a single paper costs $30 or more from some publishers.

I really can't, in good conscience, ask a student pay $30 to access a single paper and if students can access scientific literature, I can't use it in teaching.

Thanks for the reply Sanda, and looking back on my student days, I appreciate the sentiment of $30 per article. However, doesn't the college belong to a consortium that can drive down prices? Or is the quote of $30 per article a rare occurrence? How many $30 articles are you asking students to buy each year? I hope it's many for it to be used as the primary example here. And if it is many, I can't imagine that the other community colleges wouldn't band together to create better economies of scale for purchasing in group rates.

I can't help but notice the economic parallels between your example of $30 per article being used as the market example, and the individual market in health insurance. Anyone market players that act as individuals, particularly in a market characterized by major group players, always subsidize the other groups. You simply have no leverage. Like the other university systems, I would see what arrangements could be make to gain some market leverage by improving your economies of scale. Or, if the $30 per article is quite rare, stop using it as an example to effect a major policy change.

By Just saying (not verified) on 09 Jan 2012 #permalink

I wish community colleges could afford access to the research journal databases but they can't and don't.

You mentioned the patient community above. Did you know that doctors don't always have access to journals either?

Good point about showing data and article costs for multiple journals. I'll do that later today.

Not to nitpick (OK, I am), but doctors have access to journals. Everyone has access. Saying someone doesn't have access to something is emotive, but inaccurate. Particularly when you're talking about a community that makes $300,000 a year on average. If my specialist can't afford journal access, I'm probably the only one in his/her waiting room. Science literacy for docs, and its reflection in med school curricula, is a whole separate issue that we'd do well to bring in the AMA and AAMC. In many folks' eyes, not enough docs in general keep up or are able to comprehend the latest scientific evidence. But of course, the patient himself could always just ask the publisher for a free copy of an article at the doctor's request.

I am still hard pressed to believe that cheaper prices cannot be won by the national community college association negotiating directly with publishers.

By Just saying (not verified) on 09 Jan 2012 #permalink

Thank you for bringing attention to this. I have a few comments to add as a member of the general public and a former student, in between taking care of a baby.

My first comment is that just last night I was trying to find reliable primary sources that I, as a new parent talking to other new parents, could reference when talking about issues such as SIDS and vaccinations, trying, in some small way, to counteract the misinformation out there (as it happens, the misinformation is much more common and easier to get ahold of), but I kept running into paywalls. (I did find one mini-review for free on PubMed but it just didnât have enough details, and additionally had enough errors to be less credible.)

Even when the general consensus is clear and widely available, the details I would like to know arenât. For example, it is easy to find a general consensus in the pediatric community that recommends room sharing but not bed sharing/co-sleeping because of the risks of SIDS and suffocation. As a co-sleeping family (a controversial choice we made early on using various popular sources, family experiences, and the like), I would like to know if and how much risk remains to co-sleeping when other risk factors (smoking, obesity, drug and alcohol use, âsoftâ mattresses) do not apply. I just donât have enough detailed information to make good, individual decisions. As a curious private citizen willing to do the research on various topics, I could really use better access to the primary literature, not more restricted access.

By furtivezoog (not verified) on 09 Jan 2012 #permalink

Another comment I had relates to my experiences in an "introduction to bioscience technology" course I took last summer at a community college. One of the first assignments was to find two recent bioscience journal articles using PubMed and discuss them in a short paper. Unfortunately, the experience was very frustrating for most participants since they would repeatedly find articles of particular interest but then find that we had no access to them, especially for the more current materials. Eventually, I think most just settled on anything they could find.

The problem only becomes more acute when trying to do more detailed research, since then it isn't about finding just anything but about reliably finding a fair number of specific articles for even a small paper. Buying 10 or 12 journal articles for a paper would cost as much as the class' tuition. At my (fortunately) better-financed "new ivy" college during my undergraduate days, I would commonly examine 30-50 articles while working on a course's independent project, finally citing 10-20, and even then inevitably skipping some desired articles not owned by my library or local libraries.

Ideally, the decisions about what articles to use and reference would be based on issues of primacy, quality, and applicability, not about cost and availability. Isn't that how science is supposed to work?

By furtivezoog (not verified) on 09 Jan 2012 #permalink

Thanks furtivezoog!

I completely agree. You need to look at lots of articles to find the bits of relevant information.

furtivezoog - as a parent as well, I completely understand your frustration. How much research are you looking at that is within the 12 month restriction? SIDS research has been going on for quite sometime and I'm sure there's a wealth of research freely available. Have you contacted the leading pediatrics societies and inquired? Do they have literature?

At the end of the day, for a publisher, you're not the target audience that they try and pay the bills from. They know you're looking for a specific topic, not the whole journal. They don't expect patients to buy full subscriptions. So, most publishers have a policy that if you're a patient, you can access restricted content for free. I would call up and inquire. Or call up a leading patient advocacy group - often they work with publishers to get content as well.

By Just saying (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

(Sorry if this it too long!)
Hi 'Just Saying',
I appreciate your comments about patients receiving free articles from publishers. A similar set of good humanitarian practices I remember hearing about is the free or discounted access some publishers offer to those in developing countries.

I am usually not a 'patient', however (heck, usually I am just a geeky former bio student, wannabe mid/high school teacher who loves science--not 'even' a community college user). In the recent vaccine-SIDS example, I was trying to follow-up on one meta analysis that was suggesting a substantial protective effect from SIDS with vaccinations (they don't know by what mechanism, it seems) that, if true, would be good reassurance for a vaccine-adverse set of soon-to-be parents I know. One article that references the review and which would seem to have a lot of other good information is Mitchell et al. (2010), "Scientific consensus forum to review the evidence underpinning the recommendations of the Australian SIDS and Kids Safe Sleeping Health Promotion Programme", Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health
but "24 hour online access:US$ 35.00"
Ouch!*** I might be able to finagle a copy somehow, but that sounds daunting, especially since I can't claim dire need. (Unfortunately, webpages claiming that vaccines cause SIDS (and everything else) are *always* an easy click away.)

Not a perfect example--probably no US government funding for the article, I would imagine--but I think the easier and more practical we make accessing scientific information, the better. I remember the old days of literature searches, going through year after year of bound, printed Science Citation Indexes, then tracking down the hard copies of the journals, trying to photocopy the inner margins on tightly-bound Nature articles... When I went back to finish a degree, I was suddenly doing amazing searches on Web of Science and getting HTML or PDF articles with mere clicks! (Much cheaper, too, than my many thousands of pages of photocopied articles.) This ease of access absolutely made my research and citations much better. (Could this be one reason why open access journals, if I am remembering correctly, are disproportionately cited?)

I think we can all agree that the publisher's bills need to be paid somehow. But, a model that democratizes, streamlines, and increases science access by, say, asking for publishing fees to support open access, would seem to be a better model. (The fees PNAS charges/d to support publishing, typically funded out of grant money and waivable in cases of financial hardship, would seem a good precedent.) Similarly, the current policies promoting access by individuals to US government funded medical research seem a modest and appropriate.

***And seriously, $35 for online access for only 24 hours?! Would a contract like that even allow me to *ethically* send a copy to someone to make the case? It would certainly rule out me posting or sending a link to them so they could see for themselves!

By furtivezoog (not verified) on 10 Jan 2012 #permalink

In an era where the economic benefits of educating students in science are well-known, the idea of crippling science education by cutting off access to the primary literature is puzzling. I appreciate your post & these ideas are lovely. Thanks for this important post.