Richard Smith: A bad bad week for access

Richard Smith

I was once the editor of the BMJ and chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group. I work for a $100 billion company. I’m an unpaid professor at both Warwick University and Imperial College London. But, mighty and pretentious as this sounds, I’m down there in the gutter when it comes to accessing scientific articles, and this has been a particularly bad week. I want you to know about it.

My miserable week started with trying to access an article on the remarkable community led palliative care programme in Kerala. Through Google I found the article in Progress in Palliative Care, which is published by Maney (no, not Money) publishing. It would have cost me $48 to access this article, which seems particularly ironic when the Kerala scheme is supported mostly by local donations, 70% of which are under 20p a time. I managed to get a copy from the author, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t Tweet an inspiring article. (For me there’s no point in directing people to a URL where they will have to pay $48.)

Today I’ve been revising an article on research misconduct in low and middle income countries for PloS Medicine. One of the reviewers has pointed us towards some useful articles that he or she suggests we might include in our paper.

One of the references is to a paper from Nature published in 2010 on plagiarism in Chinese article. I find it through Google and can access the first paragraph for free but will have to pay £12 for the whole article. It occurs to me that I might be able to access the article through Imperial, so I ring the library. In my experience librarians are some of the most helpful people on earth and always seem to feel it as a personal failure that they can’t give you the words you are looking for. This librarian is no exception, but it seems that it’s a four stage process for me get online access to a journal in the library. I have to be induced (which I have been), have my photograph taken and get an identity card ( I couldn’t because the man was on holiday), go physically to the library with my card, and then contact the IT department to get access to the library VPN.

As that isn’t going to happen quickly, I email several friends who I know have access to libraries. Two of them send me copies of the article. I can’t tell you their names because I don’t want them going to prison. The Nature Publishing Group will have to torture me to confess.

When I get the article I discover that it’s a letter of about 250 words. Ironically, I realise too that the “study” has a major flaw, which was mentioned in a comment on the article on the Nature website that I could access for free. It’s a strange business that asks you to pay £12 for something that a free contribution in the same “thing” points out is useless.

I plough on with revising our article, and I’m grateful to Science for allowing me free access to an article published in 2006. (My most painful experience like this was being asked to pay $34.50 for the first thing I ever published in a medical journal—in the Lancet in 1974. That amounts to nearly 50 cents a word.)

My next reference is to a paper in Developing World Ethics. Surely, I think, this will be open access, but I discover that the journal is owned by Wiley and is not open access. There is an implication that if I register for the Wiley site I might be able to get access. So I register. But the article isn’t free. I’m not going to pay, but I’m interested to know how much the article will cost. So I start the process of paying, but I have to provide a great deal of billing information before I will be told. Perhaps the hope is that after all the filling of boxes I’ll be too committed to back out. I do back out, and I don’t know how much the article costs. I resort to another friend, who emails me a copy.

I can’t believe that it will still be like this in 10 years’ time. I’ve been arguing since the mid-90s that open access is inevitable in the long run, and it looks even more like that now than it did then. But it’s taking a long time to come. The vested interests are huge, powerful, and well connected. None of the people who wrote the articles I’ve been accessing were paid for writing them. They are supported by public money, and publishers are making money by restricting access to their work. I argued to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission that far from adding value to the publishing process publishers are subtracting value. I stand by that, and I’m angry.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

Competing interest: RS is a zealot for open access and was for seven years a member of the board of the Public Library of Science.

  • Notactualsize

    You are, of course, right to be angry. It’s a ridiculous and indefensible situation – for so many reasons.

  • Shocked but not surprised.

  • Harry Palmer

    Oh no! Former Chief Executive of a publishing company who was paid a very large salary to ensure subscriptions to scientific articles were behind a pay wall now moans that he can’t get access to lots of free material. Karma? Let’s hope he doesn’t want to read an article in the Times online either, or watch a new film on his iPad, or read a new book on his Kindle… 

  • Graham

    Richard Smith wants free access. Who wouldn’t? The question is: who pays for delivering this free access? Let market forces decide.

  • Zed

    The comparison is inapt. Publishers of newspaper articles, films and books: a) are still (mostly) holding up their end of the bargain in providing a larger audience than the author can do alone, and b) recompensing the content creators. Neither of those things are true for subscription journal publishers.

  • A_spurrier

    I dont think Chief exec of The BMJ publishing group equals very large salary, and wanting  to access scientific research funded by British tax payers is hardly the same as watching a film on your iPad.

  • Joeboxer

    Please, spare us the fake outrage. If you had half an ounce of initiative you’d get the articles legitimately. +Doesn’t 
    United Health Group provide journal access for its employees?

  • Nothing wrong in being able to see the situation from both sides of the table. Richard Smith was a wonderful editor for BMJ, and now he is highlighting a problem that needs to be put to bed. I believe as a first step the government funding agencies should start insisting that all papers on research funded by them should be freely available

  • Oflynns63

    Wonderful description of the real frustrations that happen when the rights of one group (publishers) have been allowed too much sway in the research system.
    Thank you also for your kind comments about Librarians; a couple of comments occur to me as a librarian working in healthcare.  Even where researchers are entitled to access journals (because they are staff or employees of a subscribing organisation) they are often unaware or unable to avail of this access, this seems to be largely because Publishers have seen protection of their rights as trumping the practical need for simple routes of access. Increasing complexity imposed by publishers (registering of this, monitoring of that, password protecting the other) has been either accepted or resented by librarians but somehow we’ve not been able to mount an effective challenge. Librarians have opted to work ever harder to stay on the right side of the law (and Publishers) while paddling like fury to help people understand and avail of access to ejournals.
    It seems that we can never do enough to bridge the widening gap between Publishers rights and scholars needs and your references to using Google as your search tool seems to illustrate this.  Librarians would be hoping to hear mention of other search tools like PubMed or TRIP; using them won’t solve access problems but could be a more reliable indicator of how much you are missing!

  • Roger

    Restricting access to the scientific literature is  a dangerous thing. Science flourished on free access and sharing of results. Now we could see access restricted to those in institutions prepared to pay the subscriptions to journals. OK the publishers have to make money, but not in this way.

  • Chriskeene

    The last time I checked, The Times pays for most of the content it publishes?

  • Ali TT

    In my field, chemistry, the highest impact journals all belong to restricted access publishers (NPG, Science, ACS, RSC, Wiley, Elsevier mostly).  How does the discipline move from this system to one of open-access?  Who budges first?  

    Is it the onus of the individual academic to publish open-access?  If so, will he or she risk their future career in a funding environment that demands high impact publications?
    Do the publishers move to a pay-to-publish policy?  Does this risk creating monopolies with publishers of the biggest journals charging extortionate rates?
    What about funders/governments insisting that research resulting from their money is published open-access?  If, for example, the UK did this but other countries did not, would it weaken our competitiveness in comparison to nations where research was still published through the traditional routes? 

  • Harry Palmer

    So publishers don’t have international marketing and sales teams working to ensure a global audience?
    Content creators are recompensed by having their articles published, meaning they get more funding and are gainfully employed (and paid). If you don’t publish, you don’t survive very long in academia. 

  • There are now services like Scholastica ( that allow scholars to manage and publish their own journals. If an editor wishes, they can publish their journal Open Access.

  • Harry Palmer

    Content costs.

  • Madeleine D   Fighting for open, free access to peer-reviewed psychology articles. 

  • Joseph Ana

    Eloquently put as usual by Richard Smith. As I read his blog I just wondered why it is that Publishers like The Times pay the writers/authors of what they publish and sell, but scientific publishers charge researches / authors before they carry their writing / research, and they take over ownership Rights for the authors(s) work, plus. Until HINARI came along and Open Access publishers who waive fees for authors i the third world, traditional publishing model meant that practitioners in the third world were mostly deprived of access to essential literature. That patient care suffered cannot be in doubt, leading to the creation of such groups as HIFA2015 forum ( Health Information for All by 2015).   

    Perhaps one hope that there is, is that such exploitation of science authors / researchers may not last another ten years that Richard fears, considering what is happening to the Open Access movement in the last few years. Open Access may not be galloping, but it has taken root and the branches are in bloom. Little wonder the very big traditional publishers are themselves launching into open access!. That.s the future.

    Joseph Ana
    Editor, BMJ West Africa Edition.  

  • Alissa

    Imagine researchers from developing countries who have neither the access or necessary contacts…

  • A. Papagiannis

    A couple of years ago I had a letter published in a scholarly journal in my specialty. I requested a pdf of the relevant page for my records, and I was denied that as I was not a subscriber to the journal. I am old-fashioned enough to lament the day when paper journals will go the way of the dinosaurs, but this is evolution. Scientific publishers will have to open the gates to free access of ALL their contents, or else be prepared to be replaced by bloggers.
    In praise of librarians, I can mention one such brave lady who found an article for me even though I had given her the wrong title, author, volume and page number. My only correct piece of data was the name of the publication.
    A. Papagiannis, respiratory physician
    Thessaloniki, Greece

  • JLarkin

    Medical publishing has always treated it’s authors badly, so fair enough it now treats it’s readers the same. They have always insisted on entire transfer of copyright (recent improvements) to “protect the authors” (tosh). They can then sell reprints to drug companies for pots of money for something they did not produce. Indeed, as mentioned above, for something the author had to produce to survive.

  • William park

    This frustration is a growing trend as the world becomes flatter and scholarly needs are expanding beyond the walls of western academia to developing countries and businesses of all sizes.  Disclosure:  I am the CEO of DeepDyve (, a Silicon Valley startup that has partnered with most of the major publishers, including Nature Publishing Group, to provide simple and affordable access to authoritative research articles via our “rental” service.  Our users can rent and view-only an article via our cloud-based service for as little as $0.99  (users can also print and download articles for the same prices as offered by publishers).

  • M.Z.

    If they did, would he have written this article?