Archive for March 19th, 2009

The future is online… but not necessarily open

March 19, 2009

No Bad Science today. Instead Dr Aust is grumbling about non-open access journal archives

Learned journals in the sciences have worked out that the future is online. Well, they have worked out that the present is already pretty much all online, and the future is likely to be more so, possibly exclusively.

And now, even the past is mostly online.

By which I mean that journals are digitizing their back issues and generating online PDF archives of their historic content.

Some journals, laudably, are putting this stuff online for free. The Journal of Physiology is an example. You can read every paper more than a year old ever published in the Journal of Physiology (in the somewhat unlikely event that you should wish to), right back to issue 1 from March 1878.


Other journals, less laudably, are putting all the back issue content behind paywalls.

I say “journals”, BTW, but I should really say “publishers”. Most scientific societies that own journals feel that published papers should be open access, though many embargo access for the first six months to a year after publication. This is so that their journal can turn a profit for the society via subscription sales to academic libraries. Many of the older academic science journals are owned by learned societies; for instance the Physiological Society owns the Journal of Physiology and Experimental Physiology, the American Physiological Society owns the American Journal of Physiology stable of journals, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology owns the Journal of Biological Chemistry. I mention these journals in particular because they are the ones I have published stuff in the most often.

It should be said that most of the money generated by the journal goes to fund the activity of the learned society.  So the Physiological Society’s journal profits go to subsidise scientific meetings in physiology, to provide travel grants for scientists to visit other labs or attend conferences, to help support Ph.D. students, to provide small prizes for top-ranking undergraduate students doing B.Sc. Physiology degrees, and similar sorts of stuff.

Publishers who own journals behave a little differently. They want your money. And not just for looking at the new research – some want it if you look at the back numbers.

This can lead to some interesting side-effects.

For instance, just yesterday Dr Aust noticed that a review he and one of his students wrote a decade-plus back has now appeared online.

“First published online Feb 5th 2009”, it says.

Now, Dr Aust thought it might be nice to have a PDF copy of this article. It was hardly a ground-breaking review, rather a methodological introduction to something. It has been cited only a less than impressive three (!) times, and one of those times was by me.

But…it tried to be clearly written and instructional. Though it is now obviously rather dated, it would still probably make a useful primer for final year undergraduate project students, and starting Ph.D. students, in the lab, since it takes them through the principles underlying the way we analyse a lot of our experimental data.

Now, another reason for getting the PDF is that Dr Aust, probably like a good few other academics, collects PDF versions of his published papers. Yes, deeply sad, I know, but there you go. And it was the first review article I ever wrote.

Finally, Dr Aust has a soft spot for this article because I wrote most of it at my mate Phil’s house in Sydney, Australia, while on a sort of half-working holiday. I would write for two or three hours in the morning and then catch the train in from the North Shore and mooch off around Sydney harbour with a sandwich and a ginger beer. After a leisurely afternoon’s pottering I would join Dr Phil down at Sydney Uni for a couple of after-work cold ones – or perhaps a trip to the Thai or Chinese supermarket, or the Sydney fishmarket, to gather some choice ingredients (Dr Aust’s mate was a a bit of a gourmet amateur chef in those days).

Anyway, I clicked the link to see the full PDF version of the article.

No joy. Access denied.

Dr Aust’s University, it turns out, does not have a subscription to the journal in question. And without a subscription, the content is paywalled. Even stuff from back in 1997.

I can, apparently, get the article for a mere 30 US Dollars.

The slight paradox of my own words being online, but me not being able to read them, has its ironic aspects. But it does seem a bit of a cheek.

After all, I didn’t get paid by the publisher for the article. Nor did my student sidekick who co-authored it. A government agency (a Research Council) was funding his Ph.D. The lab was funded at the time by the Wellcome Trust. And Dr Aust’s trip to Australia (and to a conference in Japan) was being part-funded by a Royal Society travel grant.

So ALL these folks would have had a legitimate claim to have supported the writing of the article. as, of course, would the “red brick” University that was paying, and still pays, Dr Aust’s salary.

In contrast, Karger, the publisher, definitely weren’t paying anything for anything. They got the content for the journal for nothing.

And they are the ones now selling the article for 30 bucks a pop.

Now, I suppose this meets some business model, though I reckon the chance of anyone paying 30 dollars for this article is nil. Let’s face it, if I’m not going to, you had better believe no-one else is.

It is also, I think, short-sighted, because it virtually ensures that the journal will get cited less often

Why? Well, consider the following. Suppose a scientist needs to cite a reference for something in a paper s/he is writing (say, a description of a  method of analysis). They will be looking for a reference to cite. This might be the paper where they read about the method, or it might be something else on similar lines that describes the method particularly clearly.

Let’s suppose out hypothetical scientist finds two possible references s/he could cite.

It is fairly obvious to me that if one of these is free to read online, accessible from your desk or home computer – while the other is paywalled and would require a trip to the library stacks or the coughing up of 30 dollars – that you will be far more likely to cite the one you can read.

So somehow, I don’t think that Dr Aust’s little review is going to get cited any more than the three times it has already. A shame, really.

And I still don’t have my PDF.