Saturday February 10, 2007
There are some things which are so self-evidently right and good that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree with you. The “open access” academic journal movement is one of those things. It’s a no-brainer. Academic literature should be freely available: developing countries need access; part time tinkering thinkers like you deserve full access; journalists and the public can benefit; and most importantly of all, you’ve already paid for much of this stuff with your taxes, they are important new ideas from humanity, and morally, you are entitled to them.
But with old school academic journals, unless you have an institutional subscription, you have to pay to read them. Here’s a not-so-fun example: an article called “Impediments to promoting access to global knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa”, about how difficult it is to get access to medical literature in developing countries, and how lack of access to knowledge represents a barrier to economic development and a further advantage for the rich West.
Get your credit card ready, this single study costs $25 plus tax to read.
Two online, open access publishing organizations have led the fight against the absurdity: one is PLOS, from a Californian campaigning perspective, and the other is Biomed Central, run as a money making empire (relax, there is nothing wrong with making money from publishing). They both give readers access for free, but they’ve not had an easy time of it.
Firstly, they can’t get journalists to directly link to their studies. I suspect newspapers like to fantasise that they are mediators between specialist tricky knowledge and the wider public, but I wouldn’t be so flattering. In fact, if you have access to the original journals, you can see just how rubbish things can get.
Last year the Times had a piece on paroxetine and suicide risk. The opening line was: “ONE of Britain’s most widely prescribed antidepressants has been linked to a seven-fold increase in suicide attempts.” Complete and utter nonsense. Totally factually incorrect. The study was published in an open access journal, to which the paper did not link, online or in print, but you can go and read the journal article for yourself, and see if you can spot their error (clue: the placebo group was smaller than the treatment group).
I couldn’t write this column without my institutional login. Between medical jobs with academic affiliations I’ve had to hustle logins from friends. There are times when I’ve had to use the London Underground as a way of transporting information into my brain instead of the internet. Even in the 20th century this would have been ridiculous.
And a lot of this stuff is really interesting. You totally missed out if you didn’t read the recent “medicalisation and disease mongering” special issue of PLOS Medicine. Richard Smith’s article on drug companies and medical journals is cracking. Pay for his book, if you like books, but this is all free. In fact, I would say that plenty of academic journal “commentary” articles are a lot more interesting than intellectual glossies like Prospect that sit in your loo.
But meanwhile, the old school pay-for-access journals are so worried about OA that they’ve hired Eric Dezenhall, the famous American “Pitbull of PR”, and author of “Nail ‘em: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses“, to aggressively promote their interests, and undermine OA.
And these closed journals are hardly the kind of people whose pockets you’d want to line. Reed-Elsevier, for example, is one of the largest academic journal publishers in the world – they even own the Lancet â€“ and they are the same company that runs the DSEI international arms fair in London, selling vile weapons to murderous regimes for cash profit extracted from very real suffering and pain, in countries you will never visit on holiday.
These people do not deserve our charity, and I will be very pleased to see you outside DSEI later this year, 300th copper from the left: because when you’re so wrong you need police, security, wire fences, and the pitbull of PR to defend you, then you know you’re in trouble.
[I'd have liked to have written more about this, looking at self archiving vs OA journals etc, as two emailers have pointed out]
You can hear me talk (somewhat incoherently) about this at a colloquium on open access at the royal college of physicians, here:
The Richard Smith talk at the same event is particularly entertaining.