Access to scientific publications should be a fundamental right

In my last post I reviewed a paper in Nature and gave a précis for the “scholarly poor” the internet citizens who are not employed by rich universities. (Universities have an arrogant attitude that access to the literature only matters for them, and they spend billions of taxpayers’ money in their libraries just for themselves). One of my commenters and ex-colleague (@walter blackstock) commented that it would cost 32 USD to read the Nature article (2 pages, rented for 1 day). He’s a scientist – he just doesn’t happen to work in universities – so no access to the scientific literature.

The lack of access to scientific literature is now a global shame.

Think of all the people (in all countries, not just the rich west) who cannot read the literature:

  • Patients and patient groups
  • Government and policy makers (e.g. in NGOs)
  • Environmental groups
  • Many practitioners of medicine who do not have access to (say) a national service (e.g. NHSNet)
  • Retired people (many of whom are actively involved in changing the world)
  • Schoolchildren (yes, much of the literature is – or should be – understandable by them)
  • Interested citizens who want to understand the world we live in

And, starkly, people die because of lack of access to scientific information. That sounds sensationalist, but it’s self-evidently true. If a patient group cannot read the medical literature they cannot make informed decisions. The conventional wisdom that patients are incapable of understanding their literature is no longer true in this century. The Open Source Drug Discovery project in India is more concerned with stopping people dying than their precious h-index from closed access journals. The countries which see sea levels increasing and changing weather patterns have a right to know what the scientific world is doing and saying – and indeed to be a full part of it.

I have blogged at length on this /pmr/2011/07/09/what-is-wrong-with-scientific-publishing-and-can-we-put-it-right-before-it-is-too-late/ and subsequent. I have been catalysed to continue by

So I am arguing that Access to scientific publications should be a fundamental right


That may sound dramatic so I will put it in context. lists substantive human rights to include:

Note that this not mean they are free-of-cost, free-as-in-beer. Water costs money. But it is a fundamental right:

In November 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a non-binding comment affirming that access to water was a human right:

the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.

—United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

This principle was reaffirmed at the 3rd and 4th World Water Councils in 2003 and 2006. This marks a departure from the conclusions of the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague in 2000, which stated that water was a commodity to be bought and sold, not a right.[99] There are calls from many NGOs and politicians to enshrine access to water as a binding human right, and not as a commodity.[100][101] According to the United Nations, nearly 900 million people lack access to clean water and more than 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation. On July 28, 2010, the UN declared water and sanitation as human rights. By declaring safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right, the U.N. General Assembly made a step towards the Millennium Development Goal to ensure environmental sustainability, which in part aims to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”.

Note “access to water as a binding human right, and not as a commodity“. We pay for our water in the UK, and I am (generally) happy to do this. The condition is that we must be free of monopolists, or cartels, of indiscriminate and arbitrary sanctions. In the UK water is managed in a capitalist manner and it’s therefore regulated politically and there is a water regulator (Ofwat). There are flaws in this but the system at least removes the appalling monopoly control imposed by capitalist publishers. Making water a right commits the world to finding a solution, not building individual riches.

Then there is the Internet.

The United Nations has proposed to make Internet access a human right. This push was made when it called for universal access to basic communication and information services at the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination. In 2003, during the World Summit on the Information Society, another claim for this was made.[1][2]

In some countries such as Estonia,[3]
Greece[6] and Spain,[7] Internet access has already been made a human right. This is accomplished by authorizing universal service-contracted providers with the duty to extend a mandatory minimum connection capability to all remaining desiring home users in the country.

This does not mean that access to the internet is free of cost. I pay my broadband willingly enough. But it means that in countries more enlightened than Britain I cannot be cut off by publishers.

Publishers could cut off my broadband??

Three strikes

Main article: Graduated response

In response to copyright infringement using peer-to-peer software, the creative industries, reliant on copyright, advocate what is known as a “graduated response” which sees consumers disconnected after a number of notification letters warning that they are infringing copyright. The content industry has sought to gain the co-operation of internet service providers (ISPs), asking them to provide subscriber information for IP addresses identified by the content industry as engaged in copyright infringement.[9] The proposal for internet service providers to cut off Internet access to a subscriber who had received three warning letters of alleged copyright infringement was initially known as “three strikes”, based on the baseball rule of “three strikes and you’re out“. Because “three strikes” was understood to refer to physical assault,[citation needed] the approach was later termed “graduated response”. Media attention has focused on attempts to implement such an approach in France (see the HADOPI law) and the UK (see the Digital Economy Act 2010), though the approach, or variations of it, has been implemented in a number of other countries, or attempts are made to do so.[10]

Yes – if they think that I have been violating “their” copyright they can – without judicial process get me cut off. It is they, not a court, who decide on whether it’s a violation. Wiley pursued Shelley Batts with legal threats for posting one graph from a scientific article. (Yes Wiley, until you change the rights of access to your material I shall keep dragging up this appalling violation of scientific rights). If she had done it three times they could have had her cut off .

So I am proposing that we should press for

Access to scientific publications should be a fundamental right


This makes simple sense. If justification were needed:

  • Scientific publication is a vital tool in improving the quality of (or even saving) humankind.
  • Scientific publication is largely funded by the public purse and non-profit institutions. These institutions wish the widest possible dissemination of their research.
  • Scientific publications are created by scientists and others with no intention of monetary reward. Scientists also wish the widest possible dissemination of their research.
  • The culture of this century expects information to be freely available.

If we are able to adopt this simple principle, then much else follows. It follows that cost of access should be regulated, or subsidised wholly or partly. It follows that there should be no restrictions on the flow or re-use of scientific information (the dissemination cost is near zero).

We have – through decades of academic indifference – landed ourselves with a band of publisher robber-barons and it will be a struggle to escape. But there is much experience of how to do this. There is – in many countries – strong political will. It can and must happen.


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14 Responses to Access to scientific publications should be a fundamental right

  1. Mikael says:

    I am probably naive, but wouldn’t it be good if any article/document/study not freely accessible be deemed “unscientific” since it does not straight forwardly lend itself to public, scientific scrutiny? There is no technical or other material reason not just publish it (say under a CC license) openly on the web. Paper publication may still be copyrighted in ordinary way. But I guess very little scientific publication really NEEDS paper in this date and age? So any publication that claims to be scientific should not hide behind paywalls. That is “chicken science”, and just makes itself irrelevant.
    It marks the coward. 😉
    Just my two clams from an ex-academic

    • pm286 says:

      No, you are not naive. I think your view is logically correct. It will appeal to right-thinking humans.
      But not to the senior academics who “need to protect” their cosy corner. They would rather that they get the glory from Natsci-SprigWilesevier than have it published in a lesser journal and available to the world.

  2. There are some really great points in this article. Speaking as an ex-researcher turned scientific editor it’s surprising how much work is behind the gilded pay walls of the subscription journals. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if all scientists refused to review papers for non-open access journals (as you have suggested) or only publish in open access journals.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Heather,
      Yes – I think all deans of research should spend a day each month debarred from “free” access to the literature.

  3. I can see a political argument for saying that research which is funded by the public should be made available to the public. Scientists could then take the loss of royalties into account when negotiating their pay from those public institutions. However, it is just wrong to say that \Scientific publications are created by scientists and others with no intention of monetary reward\, at least if you mean \all\ publications and scientists. And ISPs are entitled to stop providing services to people who break their contracts, just as the baker is entitled not to sell you bread if you won’t pay for it or behave badly in his shop. Making things \fundamental rights\ when that does not create any actual rights seems to me to be rather futile.

    • pm286 says:

      >>However, it is just wrong to say that \Scientific publications are created by scientists and others with no intention of monetary reward\, at least if you mean \all\ publications and scientists.
      I am talking about the publication of research in electronic journals (not textbooks). I use “scientific publications” as a shorthand as this is the main area of discourse and contention. There is no expectation of *direct* monetary reward (e.g. royalties). I then stand by my assertion – if you disagree, please provide examples
      >>And ISPs are entitled to stop providing services to people who break their contracts, just as the baker is entitled not to sell you bread if you won’t pay for it or behave badly in his shop.
      It is not the ISP contracts which are in question, but the content providers. It is the “violation” of copyright of (say) Elsevier, Thomson-Reuters, Springer, etc. They can assert that ISP subscribers have broken copyright amd enforce . This is asymmetric and against natural justice. (I have twice caused the University to be cut off for doing n othing wrong – the publisher software wrongly asserted that I had broken the contract).
      >> Making things \fundamental rights\ when that does not create any actual rights seems to me to be rather futile.
      I have every intention that this would create actual rights. They would be similar to the rights expressed in Open Source and Open Access declarations. It is completely conceivable that legislatures could be convinced by the need for this and enshrine the rights in legislation. Why not?

  4. I’ve also blogged about this issue, “Access to peer reviewed journals” a few years back.
    The more we publish (and cite) articles in open access journals the higher the impact factor will be and therefore increasing its desirability (not that I advocate this “bean counting” but it is the only system we have right now.

    • pm286 says:

      Yes the drip-drip-drip of better practice will start to change the world. But we have to allow for Planck’s constant:
      “Science progresses one funeral at a time”.
      We shall get there

  5. Perhaps, rather than refusing to review papers for “closed” journals, scientists should review and reject them on the grounds that the medium of publication is inappropriate. That is a clearer message for the publisher.

  6. Becky says:

    I agree that scientific publications should be more freely accessible. That’s why I’m such a huge supporter of public libraries, where you can get access to them. I know public libraries tend to have limited resources (and big ears for comments and needs like yours). Seriously, public libraries–ever hear of them?!

    • pm286 says:

      Seriously, public libraries–ever hear of them?!
      Yes – I used to spend every Tuesday afternoon when I was at school.
      But PLs won’t solve the problem created by profit-driven publishers. They will always outgun PL resources. And modern science can require you to “read” 50 papers an hour sometimes. PLs don’t solve that. Only OA or institutional subscriptions do

  7. Pingback: Access to scientific publications | Stem Cell Assays

  8. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - #openscholarship Bach + Kimiko Ishizaka and George Veletsianos + Royce Kimmons; Culture wants to be Open « petermr's blog

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