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Make academic access available to all

Digital conversion threatens to limit researchers’ options

– Here at Manchester University, Funderburg Library is undergoing some major changes. As is happening at universities across the country, magazines, journals and reference books are being recycled to make room for more computers and collaborative space. Most of the scientific information they contain is now available through online subscriptions maintained by our library.

I haven’t stepped foot in a library to search for a journal article since my early days of graduate school because I access all the journal articles I read online. I am fortunate enough to have a university-affiliated login and password from Manchester, which purchases subscriptions to journals and is part of timely interlibrary loan networks that allow me to access all the peer-reviewed scientific resources I could ever need for my teaching and research program. But what about people not affiliated with an institution like a university?

Imagine the following scenario: Your partner becomes ill overnight, is rushed to the hospital and is given a diagnosis for which your doctor has little information. You need reliable, scientific information about the disease so you can make informed choices about your loved one’s care.

You search online for scientific journal articles and find one that seems relevant and costs $9.95 to read. You purchase the article and, only after you read it, discover that it is either not relevant or contains so much technical jargon you can’t understand it. So you keep searching, purchase more articles and end up spending several hundred dollars to understand what scientists already have discovered. This scenario is wonderfully depicted in a YouTube video by PhD Animation called “Open Access Explained!”

How can we ensure that everyone continues to have access to reliable, scientific information?

One way is for scientists to submit their work for publication at open-access journals, which are open to the public without a subscription or fee. However, this is unlikely to happen at most research-intensive institutions, where scientists are rewarded based on the prestige of the journals in which they publish. Scientists who are affiliated with universities without such demands or who have received tenure are potentially more able to support open-access journals.

Another way is for states to provide their residents with access to a statewide virtual library. Indiana residents have access to such a library, INSPIRE, which provides access to some scholarly articles through Internet connections in Indiana. Residents who desire new scientific knowledge to be available, speedy and continuous need to encourage their state legislators to continue to fund and expand INSPIRE each year. However, this is of no use if you are not on an Internet-enabled computer located in Indiana.

A third, and potentially more helpful, way is for all of us to generate a larger discussion about how access to these digital subscriptions is increasingly limited.

There are clearly only certain circumstances under which individuals can access the latest scientific information.

For example, although many academic and public libraries grant guest logins to use at specific computers, this will only help if you are an adult visiting the library in person and not in the hospital with your loved one.

I hope we can have a national conversation about how to keep scientific knowledge accessible for everyone, regardless of where and when they need to access the information. After all, isn’t that why we conduct research in the first place, to add to the knowledge base?

The knowledge base won’t be much use to our wider society if it’s accessible only to those with login privileges and passwords or those who can pay $9.95 to read an article.

Ashleigh M. Maxcey-Richard is an assistant professor of psychology at Manchester University. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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