Scientific papers, civil disobedience and personal networks


Image credit: 4 tips on finding and reading scientific papers…

Jerry Coyne raises an important issue about science publishing on his blog, Why Evolution is True. That is the problem of most published scientific journals being behind a firewall and so inaccessible to readers who do not have an institutional subscription – unless they pay an exorbitant fee – US$30 or more per paper.

His article, Scientists engage in civil disobedience, share copyrighted papers, is aimed mainly at scientists, but the problems is probably greater for the non-scientist, as most working scientists already have institutional subscriptions and libraries which can source papers where there is no subscription.

Incidentally, this is also a big problem for the retired scientist. Since the advent of Human Resources Departments, one loses all privileges and accesses on retirement. Cards and pin numbers for access to buildings no longer work. Emails addresses are lost. And access to institutional networks, databases, libraries and journal subscriptions also disappear.

It is particularly a problem for people who wish to discuss scientific evidence online – whether they have a scientific background or not. Firewalls often mean that discussion is hindered because people rely only on abstracts (and sometimes only titles!). Sure, we are all familiar with trolls who will make confident assertions on even less evidence – but they are dishonest. I strongly believe that participants in these discussions have a responsibility to at least read the papers they cite.

So, it is frustrating to post a blog article about a new paper knowing that many readers simply don’t have access to more than the abstract. Providing a link to a copy of these papers violates copyright and there are limits to the amount of text that can be quoted in a blog post.

So what is a reader to do? I wouldn’t recommend paying exorbitant fees for a paper which may or may not be useful – and that only encourages science publishers in a practice which is little more than  blackmail or piracy.

Here are two suggestions – first the “civil disobedience” described by Jerry Coyne, which is most probably illegal because of copyright violations. Secondly, one that is far more legal and better for one’s conscience.

Sharing copyrighted papers by civil disobedience.

i-can-haz-pdf-memeJerry describes a method using the hashtag  #icanhazpdf on Twitter. The procedure is described in the Atlantic article, How to Get Free Access to Academic Papers on Twitter. Have a read – but I find it impersonal and a bit sneaky (it involves deleting one’s tweet once a paper is downloaded and there is no real contact with the person who made the paper available). However, it will appeal to some people attracted to the idea of civil disobedience and “putting it to the man.”

This method is also discussed in the articles The scientists encouraging online piracy with a secret codeword and I can haz PDF: Academics tweet secret code word to get expensive research papers for free.

Using personal and online networks

One could always try a public library for a personal inter-loan – but that hardly appeals to the modern person who desires more immediate access.

I have found using Google Scholar to search for a title will often produce a link to a pdf copy already online, maybe already in violation of copyright. It’s amazing how many papers used by anti-fluoride activists are available from links on anti-fluoride web pages.

And, in the old days we used to request reprints from authors. Why not give that a go – send an email to the corresponding author asking if they could send you a pdf.

But what about considering your own personal and online networks.

Do you have a family member, friend or even an acquaintance (or several) who works in a scientific institution? It wouldn’t hurt to politely ask if they could get a pdf of the paper you are after and send it to you. Surely it is legally OK for staff in such institutes to discuss their work, and other aspects of science, with interested people via email. I can’t see that such communications, sometimes involving attached scientific papers, violate copyright – at least in spirit.

Then there are the online networks we seem to have these days – usually via Facebook groups. Most scientists would be cagey about attaching a link to a Facebook comment but sending a pdf via personal message or email would be OK. If you don’t already belong to a science or sceptical group then this is a good reason for joining. There will be people in these groups willing to help – and if the group is a closed one there is little risk.

Perhaps join several groups – after all if you have several people or networks to call on you will feel less guilty about asking others to spend time on your request.

Finally, it is not enough to acquire these pdfs – one should always read them before discussing them. And I mean read them critically and intelligently. This infographic gives you an idea of what can be involved.


Credit: Natalia Rodrigue –  Infographic: How to read a scientific paper

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One response to “Scientific papers, civil disobedience and personal networks

  1. I appreciate the tips you gave. Often the highest quality scientific papers are hard to obtain and, I find, even harder to read and interpret well.


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