A few days ago Aaron Swartz (co-founder of reddit, co-author of RSS standards, who also helped developed creative commons license) took his own life. Many associated his death to the alleged case against him – because he “stole” millions of academic research papers from JSTOR through a computer connected to the MIT network.
The news of his death saddens many, particularly those of us in the research community. Why, you might be wondering – didn’t he steal all those academic papers? Shouldn’t we be mad that they were stolen?
I have been wanting to write something about open access for a long time – but it is really, really hard to find an angle that would get people interested in reading about it (particularly those not familiar with the process of academic research). Perhaps this is the time. And here is my attempt.
Scientists share the discoveries with the world first-hand by publishing accounts of their work in scientific journals. The papers written by scientists go through a process called peer review: Very generally, a scientist submits a research paper to a journal, and the journal publisher will pass on this paper to a few other scientists to read and provide feedback (the scientists read them without being paid). If these scientists agree that the findings seem valid and significant, the article will then go through a few rounds of editing and refinement. Eventually the article is published to be read by scientists around the world. Most of these research projects are funded through government agencies using tax dollars.
So when an interesting scientific discovery becomes public, I (or any interested scientist) would follow the paper trail to find the original publication. We will then get to see whether the study is reliable (what kind of experiments were done, is it from a reputable researcher, with a sufficient number of participants enrolled/samples tested, etc), with a conclusion that can be logically drawn from the results, if the conclusion has any significant implications, and if there are other relevant readings we can continue with.
So, you can imagine my frustration when I hit a pay wall, basically telling me that in order to read a paper based on research funded by public money, reviewed by scientists who offered their service to the publisher for free, I will need to pay $45 dollars.
It feels like there is a bully standing in my way to the public library, asking me for my lunch money.
According to the Association of Research Libraries, the expenditures associated with journal subscriptions of North American research libraries increased by an incredible 381% between 1986 and 2009 (The overall inflation rate in Canada during this period of time was 72.71% and 95.7% in US – nowhere near the 381% increase). This is mostly due to subscriptions to journals published by commercial publishers — whose journals are typically 5 times the cost of those published by professional societies or associations. Working for a university, I can access articles through my university library (I will need to use a computer on campus, or connect to the university network, and this only works for journals my university has subscriptions for). This is not free – a university can be spending $5-10 million dollars each year in subscribing to hundreds and thousands of scientific journals for its students and researchers. For some libraries, journal subscription fees eat up more than half of the their budgets.
And if my library doesn’t have a subscription for the journal that I need access to? It will cost me $10-50 to purchase one article. To avoid this, when I was in graduate school, I spent hours filling out library request forms to have the articles sent to me from other libraries with subscriptions (the librarians would photocopy the articles on paper…I don’t even want to think about how many trees I helped kill), or begged friends at another university with the subscription to send the paper to me. And from time to time there would be one that nobody seems to have access to, and I simply gave up or looked for alternatives.
This situation is bothersome for many, many reasons. I hope you are curious now – Why is it so expensive to access academic journals? Perhaps the publishers are not earning enough money to support their operations? How does this situation affect scientific discoveries? Why do we care so much about open access? I will continue with this in my next post.
Postscript – By the way, just to give you an idea, I had 194 references in my MSc thesis, most of which are journal articles. Luckily I was able to access them through my university subscriptions or through interlibrary transfers. Otherwise it would have cost me about $1940 – $9700 in journal accessing fees to finish my thesis.