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Open-Access Debate

September 27, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 39

The debate on public access favors open availability, but the story on the subject in C&EN omits several features that arise in common experience (Aug. 16, page 38).

A minority of journals now offer archival access well back into the 19th century. Recently, for example, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article on the correct assessment that basic and applied science today, including medicine and the study of the environment, are often based on older work not bereft of relevance even now.

A major problem for researchers with small grants or limited institutional funds is the prevalent practice of charging by the article, sometimes as much as $40 for a four-page report! This constitutes effective censorship by financial constraint. Imagine an up-to-date review of a fast-moving field that requires detailed examination of 150 papers. When one develops a bibliography of perhaps 10 papers closely related by topic but finds several are available only by a downloading fee of that magnitude, the likelihood those papers will be omitted rises in proportion to the size of the fee. This has unfortunate consequences: First, a review might later be found inadequate or unbalanced, and second, the impact factor of the journal charging the higher fees, based on the number of citations to its editorial product, may decline.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney has it all wrong. Her argument is an overstatement of intellectual property if applied to matters scientific. First of all, current science is always necessarily incomplete, and the basic precepts and trends are learned nationally and abroad by meetings, network groups, and links, as well as by the power of e-mail and Internet exchange. The entire field bears no resemblance to compositions of music or great novels.

A solution for the underfunded researcher might be some kind of content exchange where, for a modest annual fee, access can be gained to a wide scope of journals and bulletins from all the major publishers. In medicine, a limited but free service is already available on the Internet,; in spring 2010 this covered 60 medical journals. Recently I had the curious and mildly unsettling experience of being told by a major interlibrary loan service that a particular basic German journal on physical chemistry I sought from the 1980s was held in only one library in the network but that it lacked the volume I needed.

Douglas R. Shanklin
Woods Hole, Mass.



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