Q: What do you do if you are someone who has discovered a song that you want to listen to, but you and your local library do not have a legal copy of that song?
A: You go to your favorite online music store and pay $0.99 for the song.
Q: What do you do if you are a medical researcher or student who has discovered a scholarly article that you need to further your education, but you and your library do not have access to the article?
A: You go to the publisher of the article and pay anywhere from $7 to $100 for the article you might skim once and realize it didn’t adequately address the topic you were researching. [Update: Read the end for a new development]
Or, you think of another answer…
In the case of one online medical researcher community, the answer was to ask their colleagues who do have access for a copy of the article. Ken Masters published an article about such a situation in The Internet Journal of Medical Informatics titled “Opening the non-open access medical journals: Internet-based sharing of journal articles on a medical web site.”
How it worked is quite simple: researcher A, who does not have access to the articles, posts a request for the article. Researcher B, who does have access, gets an electronic version of the article and posts it on the web in a publicly available place. Researcher A now has access to that article. The forum where the materials were requested and posted was public (and even indexed by Google) and viewable by anyone.
At first brush, this appears to be analogous to the sharing of music online. Someone unauthorized to copy a file is providing it to someone else who did not pay to have access to it. Thus, it is very likely the actions taken by these researchers is copyright infringement. There could be some very important exceptions. Notably, a researcher not knowing they in fact did have access to the article through their library or other service. In that case the transaction was the sharing of an article between two individuals who had legal access to download and view the article, thus not copyright infringement.
One of the interesting aspects of this situation is that this community had a public log of the discussions which made it was easy for the investigator, Ken Masters, to study the discourse around what was happening. It is important to note from his findings that there did “not appear to be any vindictiveness on the part of the participants against the journals or holders of copyright, but a mood of togetherness, of openness and sharing, and communal assistance.”
This highlights one of the most important driving factors of many proponents of Open Access Journals; it isn’t about “sticking it to the man” but instead a deep seated desire to enable your peers to have the same access to knowledge as you do, and by doing so, increase everyone’s ability to learn.
Additionally, this is yet another example where a modification of a publisher’s business model could address both the issue of illegally sharing content between members of a community and adapting to the new world of online, digital, and zero marginal costs publishing.
UPDATE (10/30 11:32am):
It was recently announced that the company DeepDyve will be providing rental of scholarly articles for 99 cents (for 24 hours). They seem to have access to a large collection of articles (30 million) from a wide variety of publishers (participating publisher list).
What does this mean for researchers? It means they now have a cheap way of obtaining access to articles that they would not otherwise be able to read.
Will this change researchers’ view of Open Access? Or does it just create another venue where individuals will be charged yet another time for the output of publicly funded research? The answers to these questions are unclear. However, it is clear that this service will most likely not be a complete solution to the goal of making research available as widely as possible.