Open Access

In 1964 I visited Portland Oregon when I was working on a summer research job for an advertising firm. After being there for a couple of days, I vowed never to return. Yet, a few years later, in 1967, I moved to Portland as a new faculty member at Reed College. I’ve lived here ever since; at the time of this writing 52 years. Such are the vows of a young man.

The climate here has changed dramatically in that relatively short period. Most notably, the long winters were much colder in those early days than they are now. It snowed often then; today it hardly ever snows and if it does, it doesn’t last as long as it used to.

There were frequent ice storms then; they are a rarity now. In a word, the winters, though still as lengthy, are much more tolerable, still quite rainy, but a great deal warmer on the whole. This appears to be the case elsewhere too.

Patrick Egan and Megan Mullin write in the Times (4/21/16) that Christmas in New York last year was “lovely.” “It was the city’s warmest ever, with temperatures peaking at 66 degrees.”

They describe a paper published in the journal Nature that claims the weather is becoming more pleasant for the majority of Americans. “Over the past four decades, winter temperatures have risen substantially throughout the United States, but summers have not become markedly more uncomfortable.”

Since I am somewhat of a “weather nut,” as well as a skeptic about secondary accounts of research reports, I wanted to look closely at the article in Nature myself. I went online to the journal and quickly learned that it would cost me $199 if I subscribed for a year or $32 to purchase the full text version of the article.

This is a common dilemma for anyone seeking to read research reports in most peer-reviewed academic journals. And by “anyone” I mean an individual who doesn’t have an academic affiliation that would enable them to read such reports via their online library subscription services.

Our beliefs are heavily influenced by what we read or hear, regardless of source—book, newspaper, television, radio, online, etc. For those who want to go beyond these accounts, that is, “fact-check” and analyze secondary accounts of evidence, it’s important to be able to readily access primary materials. But if it’s going to cost a bundle, scarcely anyone is going to do that.

In the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto Aaron Swartz wrote, “The worlds entire scientific and cultural heritage…is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies of share them with the world.”

To circumvent the corporate paywalls to journal articles, Swartz downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an academic database. Following in his footsteps, Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazakhstani researcher, has established Sci-Hub, an online repository of more than 47 million scientific papers.

In the same tradition, but operating on a pay-to-publish model, the Public Library of Science established PLOS ONE in 2006 as a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal database. The site claims to cover primary research from any discipline within science and medicine.

Taken together these efforts to remove the barriers to accessing scientific research suggest the academic world is ever so gradually moving toward reform. In this country much depends on the researcher’s stance toward copyright law. Many journals require authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement that prohibits them from freely sharing their work.

But this is easy to get around. It is a simple matter to email the researcher(s) requesting a copy of the publication and most authors will be happy to comply. When I was an active researcher, I never felt protective of my work. As far as I was concerned, it was public information, freely available, gladly shared and also the most effective way to replicate and advance the area I was studying.

However, in spite of the virtues of the open access movement, I still can’t find the paper in Nature that I am seeking. Neither Sci-Hub, PLOS One or Google Scholar has a free copy of the paper.

As far as Portland, Oregon is concerned, I really don’t need confirmation that the weather is “simply becoming more pleasant.” I know it’s been warmer in the past 50 winters and it’s inconceivable that the summers will ever be uncomfortable in this city not all that far from the Arctic Circle.