Richard Smith: A crime against knowledge

Richard Smith
Firsthand personal experience of a great crime can make it real in a way that full intellectual understanding will not. Spend two hours in close contact with an African AIDS orphan, and you’ll know what I mean.

I learnt this lesson at the time of the first elections in South Africa that included all adults. I’d seen pictures of people queuing all day at the polling stations and felt ashamed that we in Britain had come to take for granted the right to vote. The day of the election I cycled home past South Africa House in London and saw people queuing to vote, but the reality of it all hit me when I was almost home to Clapham.

I cycled past a black South African friend, who is about the same age as me – and so was in his 40s at the time. I stopped and asked him if he’d been to vote. He had and had had to queue for hours.

“Do you usually have to queue?” I stupidly asked.

“Well, I’ve never voted before,” he answered, probably marveling at my foolishness.

It was my stupid question and the answer that made me feel personally the enormity of the crime that had been committed against blacks in South Africa.
I had a similar experience today when I was speaking to some friends at a medical school in India. I’ve been railing for a decade against the crime of scientific publishers making money from restricting access to scientific research funded with public money, but I felt it inside me as a result of this call.

The medical school has problems getting access to research published in journals. It’s not actually poor, and the current access problem is temporary and arises from various silly misconnections that can be put right. But they are about to run an intensive course on research methods for specially selected students from across India and would like to have access to research in journals.

They had heard that if you could supply a secure IP address you could get access to journals through the British Library. I said that I thought that unlikely but would find out from the library. I rang them, and a knowledgeable and helpful woman explained things to me.

It isn’t possible to get access to all journals online through the British Library, but the library does have a document delivery service. It can deliver almost any article within a few days – for a charge. These articles can be emailed either to a secure IP address or to any email address if encrypted. The charge is £9 plus VAT plus the copyright charge of the publisher, “and,” she said apologetically, “that might be quite high, up to £20 for the big commercial publishers.” The copyright fee can, however, be waived if the institution is something like a medical school.

This seemed promising, although galling, to me, but the twist I felt deeply was that the fee would not be waived for even medical schools if the article was going to be emailed. It could then only be posted or faxed, and faxing is more expensive. This twist of the publishers seemed to me particularly cruel.
That kick made me decide to redouble my commitment to making sure that all research is available open access. Mark Walport, head of the Wellcome Trust, was similarly inspired when he was unable to access for free a piece of research that the trust had funded. Others have been inspired by being asked to pay $25 in order to access a paper entitled “Impediments in promoting access to global knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa.”