Come in, we're open!

May 07 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

A lot of the push from the open access (OA) movement is to make federally-funded scientific research freely available to the wider public. This of course is a laudable goal, especially since this research is the fruit of taxpayer money. What I decided to do is to ask myself the question, what if I wanted to access the latest biomedical research but was not affiliated with a university or medical center? What would I have access to? For the last five years or so, the NIH has required that any research that is published as a result of NIH grants be uploaded into a freely accessible database called PubMed Central. This is in fact done automatically by several journals upon acceptance of a paper, such that PMC now has over 2.7 million articles freely available. The one catch, which seems to be more of an issue for some people and not for others, is that in many cases this material is not made available on PMC until after 6-12 months post publication. In fact many top journals are following the trend of offering their archives for free for articles that are 6+ months old. Obviously, open access journals make their stuff available immediately, but these represent a small portion of overall scientific publications. Likewise, many publishers will make their articles available for free for patients researching a given condition.

So, what if you wanted to see what was published in the latest issue of Cell, or of the Journal of Neuroscience and don't want to wait 6 months, what are your options? For one, you could always try a library! Yes those still exist! I decided to check what kinds of resources would be available in several US cities for the general public and found quite a bit. For example, if you live in Boston, and you are a member of the Boston Public Library, you can have free physical access to the Harvard Medical School Library, which means that you can access electronic resources and therefore ay journals the library subscribes to. If you live in New York, the New York Public Library offers electronic access to hundreds of scientific and medical journals. In DC, the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda also offers free access to thousands of online medical journals. OK, but what if you don't live in one of these major cities? Many public universities and medical schools provide free or paid access to their libraries for research purposes, as do many private universities.

We are all so used to being able to access all the information all the time from our living rooms while sitting around in our underwear eating cheese doodles. But in fact if you actually get to a library you will find that you can find and access almost everything you are looking for, even if it's behind a paywall. Ideally, yes, all information should be free all the time, but in reality things aren't quite as bad as some would lead us to think.

 

6 responses so far

  • Andy says:

    Although I generally agree that university libraries are often forgotten by people trying to gain literature access, I add a few comments:

    1) Not all public universities have access to the titles that people need / want--e.g., in my field of paleontology, even some local universities don't subscribe to important journals. And, many university libraries don't have ILL privileges for non-students and non-staff. Thus, if it ain't there it ain't accessible.

    2) Fairly wide swaths of the population do not have immediate access to public universities or medical schools. Case in point: I grew up in a rural area of South Dakota, 45 miles from the nearest (quite small) university. The nearest major research university library was 100 miles away. I made great use of ILL from my small-town public library (back in the days when there were budgets for ILL; this was the mid-1990s), but open access and a university library next door sure would have been nice.

    3) Related to #2, even if there is a university library nearby, you have to be able to *get* there.

    If I sound frustrated, it's because "just go to the library" is usually thrown off as a solution by those who have never had to fight for access to the literature...I have, and I know from personal experience that library access is only a partial solution.

    • namnezia says:

      I agree, in my very quick survey I was looking at the biomedical literature which comprises most of cell and molecular biology, genetics, neuroscience, physiology, medicine, etc. which seems fairly well represented by the journal selections and by PMC. For other fields access is probably more limited. And as with a lot of things, being in a large city gives you greater accessibility. It's not a perfect solution, but it is one that is often overlooked.

  • Terry says:

    And, some private libraries might not let you in (especially at smaller private institutions). But most of these libraries are depositories for government documents, which need to be accessible to the public. So just say that you're there to see the government docs. Then, once you're in, you're in.

  • Helen says:

    Absolutely agree about privilege & access ("many" top journals and older articles don't cut it: if you're doing research, you need current papers and all the journals.)

    but just FYI, if you have an undergrad degree, check your uni for alumni access. My institution has alumni membership for about forty bucks a year.

    • namnezia says:

      True, although in my experience I've found that whenever I'm doing a literature search for a grant or paper, about 90% of what I cite is older than six months and in a relatively small group of journals in my field, most of which I was able to find in the catalogs of the various places I linked to. In cases where there's no access to journal, one can always email corresponding author for reprint. I get these requests all the time from developing countries.

      I'm not saying this is the best solution or necessarily easy, but it is possible if one is resourceful.

      Alumni access is definitely a plus.

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