Although the number of open access journals is continuing to increase, much scientific research is still published in subscription-based journals. The articles published in these journals are under copyright; therefore, either the scientist or the institution at which they work must hold a valid subscription to access the content.
As of November 2015, a personal subscription to Nature costs £135/€209 if you are based in the Eurozone or the Russian Federation and £210 for many countries in the Middle East and Africa. The cost of institutional subscriptions tends to be kept under wraps, but it is unlikely that these are cheap. Many journals allow the purchase of individual articles, but this can cost around $40 in some cases.
Such costs can be a real barrier for scientists working in poorer developing countries, thereby denying them access to material that should, some would argue, be available to all (particularly as the majority of scientific projects are funded by public money).
So, what are these scientists to do? The answer, according to a recent article, is to resort to online piracy.
Here’s how it works. A scientist tweets a link to the paper that they wish to read along with their email address and the hashtag ‘I can haz PDF?’, which plays upon popular meme trends common in social media. Then, another scientist who has access to that paper (via a personal or institutional subscription) will send it to them. Once the supplier and recipient make contact, all further correspondence is via email and the original tweet is deleted. The transaction is essentially untraceable.
Although a breach of copyright, some argue that such activity is morally defensible as this allows important research to be read by scientists in developing countries and strikes a blow against for-profit publishing companies, who clearly do not approve of such practices. Indeed, publishing companies have launched lawsuits against websites set up specifically to facilitate free dissemination of scientific papers.
Publishing companies argue that they provide vital oversight and editorial services that add value to the papers they publish. Many disagree, however, and believe that journals make large amounts of money, even though scientists carry out peer review for free and many authors pay for English language editing services prior to submitting their papers to journals.
So the argument rages on. It remains to be seen whether the march of Open Access will make the working lives of scientists in developing countries easier. Anyone who believes that scientific research should be accessible to all will hope so.