Disrupting access to scholarly journals

What happens when scholars bypass the library? In new and probably illegal ways?

Why would you want to pay 30 USD for a 20 year scientific article?

It’s nothing new. Scholars have always exchanged information. In olden days, before the deluge of videos shaming cats for silly behaviour, scientist regularly needed access to papers that were not available through their university library. When that happened, they asked their secretary to write the author of the paper, and request a copy.

It was institutionalized. When you submitted a paper to a journal, you were expected to buy a number of preprints of the paper from the journal. That  covered some of the cost of printing the journal, and you were welcome to distribute the preprints among your colleagues. You were annoyed that you had to buy them, but you actually needed them, to promote your own work, so that was OK.

Then the internet happened. Scholarly journals became digital, information suddenly had the potential to become very free. Scholars had instant access to huge numbers of scientific papers. Information could travel around the globe almost instantly. What also happened, was that the cost of subscribing to the journals went through the roof. No university library today can afford to subscribe to all the journals that researchers want access to. The publishers still want to be paid for the access, so they erect paywalls around their content. If your university library does not subscribe to the journal you want to read, you can pay to get access.

Okay. The scene is set. We have scholars, who believes that information should be free. We have information with a very high potential for being set free. And most of that information is hidden behind paywalls, where some scholars have access, and others dont.

Solution? Write to a colleague that has access, and ask him to email you a pdf.

Again, nothing new. We’ve seen it before. If we could gain access to the emails, we could describe the networks exchanging pdfs.

It might even be possible to describe this situation with nice formulas. It is probably analogous to the potential energy harnessed by cells, then there is a difference in the concentration of sodium ions across a cell membrane.

But now something interesting has happend (it actually happened a couple of years ago).

Researchers have begun using Twitter to request copies of papers they otherwise wouldnt have access to. They tweet the hash-tag “#ICanHazPDF, along with a reference and an email-adress. And kind people around the world, with access to the paper, send a pdf-copy of it. Quick. Easy. Free.

That was a very long introduction, inspired by this post. Whats next? In the next couple of posts, I’ll try to analyze what the consequences of this new-ish phenomenon might be. Maybe we’ll even get some numbers.