Locked out…

On why a move to Open-Access publishing is a blessing, and a younger generation of scholars have little understanding of just how locked away knowledge used to be.

When I was an undergraduate you couldn’t get a journal article online, about the most you could hope for was a table of contents (ToC). Getting access to scientific articles meant a visit to the library with a photocopy card and a great deal of patience. ‘Bagging’ a photocopier was an artform in itself – I think everyone thought they knew of a secret, hidden photocopier on an upper level of the library, one that you felt you owned. Of course, this fog of solipsism would evaporate upon arriving to find your photocopier being used by another person. You would then resign yourself to waiting, staring indignantly at the interloper.

There were those students who were either too lazy, or too apathetic to perfect the art of photocopying; these people were destined to long, long waits and having to find new and inventive ways of marking their presence in the queue while they used the bathroom. Of course, you could make a few pounds (or free pints) by selling your pristinely photocopied articles to them. I think everyone experienced those occasions where, within reach of the photocopier, you would find that the article you thought you had was actually in the next bound edition along on the shelf, or you’d finally arrive to find the toner so depleted that you would need to pencil over some of the words in  to make them legible. That was if you were lucky – if you were unlucky, you could expect there to be a paper jam, or no paper left.

Access to articles was also limited to which journals your university subscribed to in print. During my honours research project, if any of the PhD students/postdocs in that lab heard that someone was planning a library visit to Manchester or Leeds, they would not escape without a long list of journal article requests from them, and a £10 note by way of compensation for a weekend of pain in an unfamiliar library, ignorant of the pecking order.

So why am I telling you about this? Well, I have long considered myself an advocate of open access (OA) publishing, and in fact my lab went to some considerable expense to pay for my first publications to be OA, several £thousand in fact. I welcomed all efforts towards OA journals and celebrated the day when the PLoS journals came into being. In a frank admission, however much I supported this cause I’d never actually experienced being without access. For 16 years, from the first day I set foot within a university, I have always had access to journals. As I worked in a large Russell Group university for the entirety of my research career, I have never wanted for an online article; I was often unaware when articles were behind a paywall because my computers both at work and at home were set up to pass them without hinder.

I recently finished my latest research contract, and within a fraction of a second of leaving the department I lost all access to my former employer’s eResources. For the first time in my life I’m unable to access 80% of the articles I need without having to email friends and request them. As I suddenly find myself trying to read up and prepare to be part of the blogging team at the Nobel Week Dialogue in Stockholm in December (more about that in an upcoming blog post), as well as do some contract consultancy and prepare for a pretty major interview, I’m being blocked at every turn. It makes me wonder how the hell professional freelancers do it? For amateur enthusiasts this is an annoyance, making them reliant on some of the great science writing available online, but to jobbing scientists and freelance science writers trying to keep up with their game, it’s like having a door slammed in your face.

I can only think that, in principle, the UK Gov Plc getting behind OA publishing is a good thing; however, I have every expectation that they’re merely going to pay for it by taking money away from research funding, rather than providing an extra quota for it. I find it all the more annoying that if I didn’t already have copies of my papers, I would not be able to access some of those I wrote! Perhaps, at the very least, journals for whom we peer review could give us permanent access? I was interested to see that in the latest paper I reviewed, the review process itself gave me temporary access to a whole range of journals, a fact that I’d not noticed before.

I’ve found a temporary solution, and remain hopeful that – all things going well – I should have access restored, however, for a great many professionals and amateurs alike the presence of paywalls for accessing material that WE scientists produce/review, and which communicate the results of publicly funded research, is a real impediment to progress.


UPDATE 13th November 2012:

Clearly my gripe about being Locked Out of university benefits – such as access to journals – was timely, because Elsevier has put in place a new scheme called the ‘Postdoc Free Access Passport’. “The program, which is open for applications until December 15, provides unlimited access to books and journals on ScienceDirect for up to six months to young scholars who do not have a research position.” – for more information, read here. Incidentally, this actually looks like it’s an expansion of the free access to reviewers scheme that I commented on in the above post.

[This post was restored from a WayBackWhen archive. It was originally posted to a blog called ‘The Gene Gym” that began life on the Nature Network in 2010, and then moved to Spekrum’s SciLogs platform.]


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