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Beg, Borrow, or Steal: Accessing Unaffordable Science Journals


Xconomy National — 

If you work in academia or in Big Pharma, you likely have easy access to the world’s scientific literature. Outside of these places, however, obtaining affordable access to the latest scientific journals is much more problematic. This includes scientists at all but the largest biopharma companies, doctors and other health care professionals, and people wanting to research diseases for themselves or loved ones.

Many journal articles cost $30 to $35 each to download, so it’s easy to run up a big bill in a hurry. Given that Big Pharma is outsourcing much of its early stage R&D to small biotech companies, it’s more important than ever that people working in these places be able to keep up with what’s happening in their fields. Compounding the problem: the worldwide production of scientific literature continues to grow at an overall rate of 2.8 percent each year.

I’ve been exploring ways to obtain cheaper access to articles in the scientific literature for those who can’t afford to purchase them a la carte. I’ve written about this subject in previous articles for Nature Biotechnology and Xconomy, and it’s clear from the response to these stories that I touched on a nerve. People hate it when the dreaded paywall appears when trying to access a link on the Internet. Nothing is more annoying than finding out that you can’t readily access some information that’s been put forth in support of a point made in an online article without a credit card in hand. My back-of-the-envelope calculations show that approximately 73 percent of full-text articles in PubMed are secured behind a paywall (that’s over 10 million papers).

I’ve suggested a new model for gaining access to the literature, based on iTunes, and that I named iPubSci. The idea has been well received by many scientists, but implementation is going to take a sea change in academic publishing business models. One blog writer suggested that the concept has already been discredited simply because it has not yet been adopted. I can’t guarantee that it will ever become a viable business model. The change from purchasing records or CDs to buying individual songs has been a financial calamity for music publishers, as described in Robert Levine’s finely detailed book, Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. The effects on musical artists, however, are much less clear. Moving to a model where people can purchase individual research articles instead of entire journal issues will likely be anathema to academic publishers as well, as it does not fit in with their current (and highly profitable) business models.

What are the primary ways that people access the scientific literature if you don’t happen to work at a research university? Faced with this lack of access, I’ve found the most common approaches are for people to “beg, borrow, or steal” their way in. According to the online Cambridge Dictionary, this phrase means, “to do whatever is necessary to get something.” Here’s how they do it:

This approach works pretty well if you’re looking for a recently published paper: simply email one of the authors and ask for a pdf reprint. I keep a blank template loaded in my email program that just requires me to fill in the investigators name and the title of the paper. I’ve found that my success rate using this approach to be pretty high, maybe around 85 percent or so. It also provides an entrée to the author should you have any follow-up questions or comments on the data described in the paper. Getting the investigator’s email address is often easy, but sometimes very hard. Some journals facilitate this process by making the address readily available; others deliberately obfuscate this process by making you contact authors directly through the good graces of the journal. They don’t provide email addresses, and I suspect that requests made here for reprints may somehow not find their way to the author. It’s also a good idea to look at the senior author’s website, because many principal investigators maintain downloadable pdf files of their papers in that location.

Unfortunately, accessing copies of older journal articles via the “beg” approach is very challenging: many authors will have moved on to other institutions, retired, or died since the articles were published, and a substantial percentage of vintage articles may not be readily available in a digital format (e.g. pdf file) that facilitates their rapid transfer.

Borrowing is just another way of sharing journals. This is a common approach used within small biotech companies: a number of people each purchase an individual subscription, which is then shared among the group. This process does not readily lend itself to having a significant number of subscriptions, because they would very quickly become unaffordable. Considering that many scientists in biomedicine would want access to at least a hundred journals, this doesn’t work out in a small, industrial setting. Virtual biotech companies (i.e. those that outsource all of their R&D, clinical, and regulatory functions) will be especially challenged in this regard. There are also the usual issues of physically finding older print copies, which may be at a work site or at home. It’s also possible (and maybe even likely) that if someone leaves the company they will take all of their back issues with them.

How else can you “borrow” access to science journals? A second approach is to simply visit your local institution(s) of higher learning and access the materials you need directly from the campus libraries. For those who don’t live near such places this would still be a burden, but for many other folks this is a solid approach. The librarians are usually quite helpful at providing instructions on how to access what you need. Depending on the place, you may be able to print out what you want, email articles home to yourself, or download them and take them away on a flash drive. Additional costs associated with this approach would include transportation, parking, and possibly printing or photocopying costs.

Got some nice, friendly neighbors who work at the local university and have remote access to their online library? If they are willing to share their access code, you will now have a convenient doorway into the library’s journal articles as well. I harbor no illusions that such an approach is likely illegal and that university administrators (and publishers) will not condone this practice. The success of this approach depends on having an accommodating neighbor as well as a university that makes no effort to ferret out such transgressions. Exactly how many people employ this approach is difficult to say. It’s unlikely that people filling out journal usage surveys, whether from the university or the publishers, would admit to this particular route of access.

Other Handy Tips and Tricks
One of the biggest frustrations associated with purchasing science journal articles is that you can’t preview the paper. Buy it, and only then may you realize that it doesn’t actually contain the information that you were seeking. Abstracts aren’t always composed in a way that allows you to figure out exactly what data are provided in the paper; many are poorly written. I’ve described this situation as being akin to … Next Page »

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Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • Tom

    Useful tips, thanks! This is a real problem for many people and companies. As you know, much of the research is performed using Federal (taxpayer) funds. There should be free public access to those studies and papers.

  • Researcher

    Why has there not been a discussion that academics who work for colleges or businesses that accept federal funds produce papers essentially paid for from public funds and should be freely available?