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Liberating research.

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Here is a story of how Australia is at least thinking of making some of it’s publicly funded research fully available to anyone who wants to use it.

Being currently based in a University campus with a University subscription to the largest journals can spoil a person, because we get used to simply clicking on a link and getting to view the article. But it is surprising to encounter the number of hurdles which one has to go through to gain access to this information while outside university environs. A look at some of the prices makes me shake my head with incredulity, as I have seen journals charge something like $30 just to view a 3 page paper online.

The general mechanism of a paper getting published in a journal is that the author(s) send their manuscript to the journal editor, who then removes the names (and probably other identifiable marks) and sends it to some reviewers whose opinion he trusts. The reviewers go through the paper, try to punch holes in it and send it back with their comments to the editor. Depending on the comments, the editor will either accept the paper, or will send it back to the authors asking for corrections or will reject it. It is a fairly involved process, but a necessary one given that findings have to rigorously examined before they can be marked as trustworthy. It also means that in the days when all this happened with printed sheets of paper and snail mail, there was someone who had to take the effort of mailing the manuscripts back and forth, keeping tabs of who can review what etc. Obviously this is where the publishing companies stepped in and being the capitalistic setup that we are, they extensively tried to control the content so that they could then make their money by charging for subscriptions and for sale of individual articles. The great thing for the journals was that they practically gained ownership of the published article, despite the fact that the work was done by a researcher and paid for with public money. Even more hilarious was that the journals did not pay for these articles, they got them for free, but sold them for a price.

That was probably justifiable given the cost and the effort of sending manuscripts for review, printing journals and then again sending them to subscribers but given the presence of the internet, this model of a select few (publishers) having complete control over the results of publicly funded research sounds quite ludicrous and I guess some governments are waking up to the fact. The internet allows the whole operation to be done almost free of cost. A network of academics/industrial researchers could easily be built on a model like any of the social networking sites where everyone can list their areas of expertise. A soft copy of every new paper desiring publication can be put up on a forum, where anyone who is interested can read and make comments. The person doing the job of the editor can then consider the comments and make a decision on whether to allow the paper to be published or not. “Publishing” the paper will involve making a soft copy available for download and probably updating the RSS feed letting subscribers know that there is a new article up. The whole thing can be done completely digitally with no need of any kind of printing and mailing necessary and therefore can probably run by a few people from their garage using a storage service like Amazon’s web services. The printing is now done by the readers who like to read from paper, while others(like me) who prefer soft copies can read directly from the screen, Either way, it sure has the potential to save a hell lot of resources.

The hiccup to this has as usual been the paranoia of the group which would look their control-advantage from such a move, namely the publishers in question. There have been reports of a similar move being stymied by the publishing lobby in Britain and though I cannot substantiate the claim, the fear behind the publishing companies motives for doing so is quite understandable. No one would like to lose control of their cash cow, but for the betterment of society, I think such moves are necessary.


Written by clueso

October 2, 2008 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. This article has got me thinking in a rather twisted way. Considering the hefty prices placed on viewing a 3 page article, univ students might soon start considering an alternate business of supplying these journal articles at a subsidised rates to joe public. For all you know it probably already happens…

    Moon Shadow

    October 3, 2008 at 12:12 pm

  2. @Moonshadow: Unfortunately, selling the document in plain view can get people in trouble because legally when the article is published, the journal owns the copyright. Technically, the students can sell the article on the sly, but I don’t know if they will be interested in doing that.

    What I have heard is students putting up slightly modified versions of their own papers on their websites for people to download and view. But unfortunately, the journals are still the prime mode of reaching the masses.


    October 3, 2008 at 11:30 pm

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