What does it mean for academic papers to be available freely?


To me? A great deal. In December I started to work in independent practice and in December, for the first time in  many years I lost the ability to access freely academic journals. An interesting position to be in and one experienced by the majority of healthcare professionals working outside of academia or the NHS. Even within the NHS reduced  access is a frustration for healthcare professionals who, on completion of postgraduate studies linked with a University, are more limited in what they can access.

Therefore it was with real interest that I followed up a number of tweets last week about Sci-Hub which was established in 2011 and, until now, has passed me by completely. What follows is a precis of the story published in sciencealert.com, and bigthink.com.  Sci-Hub was created by Russian neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan as a consequence of her frustration at her inability to access articles without having to pay. Does this resonate with you? You find an abstract that looks promising, follow the link and are met with a request for payment?

Here is something I have been reflecting on prompted by this story. I was looking for a paper last week and to access it for 24 hours would have cost me $40 (£27.57p). Now here’s the thing – I receive fairly regular request from said journal to carry out article reviews. I am required to do this free of charge within 10 working days. During those 10 days I receive reminders of the approaching deadline and if I miss it I receive an email pointing out how I am holding up the review process. If I decline to undertake the review I am automatically directed to a webpage asking me to suggest alternative reviewers from my professional network. Hmmm.

Alexandra Elbakyan moved way beyond my frustration and established what is in effect a pirate repository of over 48 million journal articles. How does it work? You type in the URL of the paper you are seeking and the full text of the paper appears – it works I searched for one of my papers and the full text was there in seconds.

Behind the scenes your request is first routed to similar pirate site LibGen and if they don’t have it… well you know you are told to never share logins or password – anonymous academics have donated theirs to Sci-Hub enabling it to access journals that otherwise sit behind paywalls. The neat thing is that if it accesses a paper in this way Sci-hub then sends a copy of the paper to LibGen to increase their repository.

Needless to say Alexandra Elbankyan is the subject to a law suit  in the US brought by Elsevier and was ordered to close the site down in December. However it is still up and running. In fighting the injunction Alexandra has cited article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which states that: ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.

The points made in her letter to the judge in her defence are really worth reading. Having published in academic journals, chaired an editorial board of a professional journal and published books I understand the different perspectives. However it is my current position of being effectively locked out of the world of academic publishing that makes me cheer for the tenacity of Alexandra Elbankyan and what she is fighting for – the democratisation of knowledge.

Some of the greatest beneficiaries of this fight will be people in developing countries but a thought I will share which is closer to home and focused on practice rather than academic publishing- if we are committed to evidence informed practice and the rapid translation of research into practice what will happen within an increasingly fragmented health economy where no one working in the independent or voluntary sectors, like me, has access to the evidence?

The photo used in this post was taken by Aleski Tappura and downloaded from Unsplash.com



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