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Every week or two I see a tweet, or overhear a conversation, from somebody bemoaning the difficulty of accessing a paper. Often it reads about like this:
Another day, another paywalled paper I can’t access and won’t cite. Moving on to read some open science….*
I get that open-access is an attractive model**. I’d be pleased if we moved all our literature this way, although only if that meant that we had solved the (enormous) transitional funding problems and dealt with the inevitable unintended consequences. But none of that matters to a simple and important point: I don’t care how fervent an open-access advocate you are; it’s still your job to use our literature properly. It’s absurd to claim that a paper deserves to be read and cited if it’s published in The American International Journal of Ecography (a hypothetical open-access journal that’s predatory with fraudulent peer review***), but not if published in The American Naturalist (a subscription-model journal of very high quality published by a great society). Absurd.
Making a good-faith effort to find and cite work relevant to your own is an indispensable part of doing science. And by “good-faith” I don’t mean “two mouse clicks and a four-second timeout rule”. I mean using the document-delivery service that 99% of all working scientists have access to****, e-mailing the corresponding author to request a PDF, or checking with a friend at another institution. I do those things routinely (usually in that order). I don’t remember ever being unable to secure a copy of something I needed, and the median wait time has been ~48 hours. Sometimes, if the source is really obscure, I’ve had to unleash the awesome power of a librarian (you can do this too; you’ll find they love to be asked).
If you can’t be bothered to find, read, and cite (if appropriate) a paper because it can’t be delivered instantly to the desk you’re sitting at, that isn’t a stand on principle – that’s being lazy and irresponsible.
“Lazy” is obvious, but why “irresponsible”? When you neglect a subscription-model paper, you fail to credit the work of your colleagues and your predecessors. You also miss opportunities to stand on others’ shoulders – to improve your own work by incorporating insights that have already been published. If you use a less powerful analysis than you could, neglect a known-to-be-important covariate, or attack a question that’s already answered, you aren’t just harming your own science – you’re wasting research funding. We’re not swimming in funding, and the public are increasingly less enthusiastic about providing that funding via government, so wasting it is a significant dereliction of duty.
So by all means be an advocate for open-access publishing – that conversation needs to continue. But while you’re advocating, please also be a good scientist.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) February 1, 2017
Disclosure: I am an Associate Editor for The American Naturalist (subscription model) and for FACETS (open-access). Neither journal saw or commented on this post, which reflects my views and not necessarily theirs.
*^This is a mashup, not a single, real tweet reproduced to call out a particular individual. But believe me, it’s true to the form. If anything, I’ve fallen short of representing the disdain for the task of ferreting out literature from a subscription-model journal. But to be clear: I am well aware that not all, not even most, open-science advocates take this position.
**^Although it’s peculiar that we hear about it for journal papers, but not for books – and not for groceries, where it would do a lot of immediate social good.
***^Yes, I understand that not all open-access journals are predatory. Someone will inevitably claim I’m confusing the two, but they should have read more carefully. To anticipate another obvious objection: yes, I’m aware that not all, perhaps not even many, open-access advocates believe they can just ignore the subscription-model literature. But enough do – or at least say they do – to get me riled up. The fact that citation rates are higher for open-access journals (citation needed, someone please remind me why I know this) suggests that a substantial number of people really do act this way.
****^This statistic may well not hold in the developing world, and I have much more sympathy for the can’t-access-the-literature argument coming from there. But that’s not who I’m hearing from.