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.