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Beg, Borrow, or Steal: Accessing Unaffordable Science Journals

Opinion

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test-driving a car after you’ve purchased it, only to find out that it’s non-returnable if you’re not satisfied with the experience. What’s needed here is a free preview, and in fact, that is just what DeepDyve’s “freemium” service provides. Sign up with DeepDyve, and you can get a free five-minute look (per 24 hour period) at any of 8 million articles from over 3,000 journals. This isn’t enough time to read an article, but it may be enough time to enable you to figure out if the article will provide the information that you are seeking. ReadCube also provides lower-priced rental and purchase options, but they come with both printing and sharing restrictions.

Special Resources For Patients And Their Families
Many patients newly diagnosed with a wide variety of maladies have run smack into a large paywall as they try to learn more about their diseases and possible treatments. If you are fortunate enough to live in the U.K., you can tap into Access to Research, a two-year pilot program that is available in public libraries and provides access to over 10 million research articles. There are some significant restrictions, including one that says you cannot “download onto disc, CD or USB memory sticks or other portable devices or otherwise save, any publications accessed through this search.” I didn’t see a restriction on printing, so I guess that’s OK.

There is another initiative, patientACCESS, which has the same basic mission but is not restricted to the U.K.: offering up research journals to patients. Included in this is a collaborative effort that includes the journal publisher Wiley and provides free or reduced cost access to over 300 different medical publications. As above, there are significant restrictions (including processing fees and possibly taxes) and you are not allowed to make electronic or even physical copies. Much more limited in scope is patientACCESS that is provided by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which gives entry to only two journals (Journal of Clinical Oncology and Journal of Oncology Practice) and is aimed at cancer patients and their caregivers. This last resource kindly provides pdf copies of requested papers.

Sign Up For A Class Or Online Journal Club
At many academic institutions you can get full access to the university’s libraries once you have signed up for a single class. Once you realize the expense of subscribing to even a small number of journals, it becomes much cheaper to take this approach. You might even learn something new as a side benefit! As far as I know, signing up and paying the tuition credits is likely all you need to do. There’s no need to pass the class, or even attend the lectures. Alternatively, you may be able to find an online journal club that pretty much does exactly the same thing. And if you’re a senior citizen (in some cases defined as being over 50 or 55 years old), you can often sign up for a course at a greatly reduced price. The University of Washington has a great deal: if you’re a state resident and over 60, you can audit a class via their Access Program for less than $25, and that gives you full access to the university library (including remote access).

Join Your Alumni Association
I’m not sure how widespread this is, but at least some university alumni associations offer access to university libraries for their members. For example, alumni of the University of Wisconsin can access the ProQuest Research Library that provides full text of almost 1,000 periodicals as well as the ABI/INFORM database. Not as good as having full access to a spectrum of university libraries, but this can be quite helpful.

Other Options For Those In Developing Countries
If you happen to live in a developing country, there are other options available to you for getting journal access. The World Health Organization has set up the HINARI Programme (a part of the research4life organization) to provide access to a good chunk of the biomedical literature. According to its website, this provides “up to 13,000 journals (in 30 different languages), up to 29,000 e-books, [and] up to 70 other information resources [that] are now available to health institutions in more than 100 countries.” Similar programs include inasp as well as the New School for Social Research’s Journal Donation Project. Other options might include the Virtual Science Library Program, which is also focused on providing science and technology resources to the poorest countries.

Other Options
Open access journals, by definition, can be accessed for free via the Web. One other resource is HighWire Press, which is affiliated with Stanford University. According to its website, HighWire provides over 2.3 million free full-text articles. For many of the journals it covers, you often need to wait 12 months after publication before you can access the articles for free. Some, however, can be accessed immediately, i.e., they are available at no charge. There are rumors circulating that Google may be planning a disruptive assault on the scientific publishing industry via its Google Science initiative, but the veracity of these rumors can’t be confirmed. Whether they have actually built something resembling my proposed iPubSci model remains to be seen.

Any business that has large numbers of unsatisfied customers is ripe for disruption, and scholarly publishing certainly fits the bill. However, not everyone recognizes the problem. In a recent interview, Gordon Nelson, President of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, responded when asked if there are better alternatives to solving the public access problem, “Frankly, I am unclear what the public access challenge is. Who does not have access?” Access, for many people, means affordable access, and the affordability issue is in need of a solution.

Journal publishers will likely take a dim view of your engaging in some of the activities I’ve described above, but the wind of change is blowing, and this wind sows fear. They’ve seen the massive disruptions taking place in the music business and feel the need to defend their own turf. The worries of those representing the status quo against change were nicely captured by Bert, the chimney sweep counterpart to sunny Mary Poppins, when he sings, “Winds in the east, mist coming in, like somethin’ is brewin’ and about to begin. Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”

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Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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3 responses to “Beg, Borrow, or Steal: Accessing Unaffordable Science Journals”

  1. Tom says:

    Useful tips, thanks! This is a real problem for many people and companies. As you know, much of the research is performed using Federal (taxpayer) funds. There should be free public access to those studies and papers.

  2. Researcher says:

    Why has there not been a discussion that academics who work for colleges or businesses that accept federal funds produce papers essentially paid for from public funds and should be freely available?