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File-sharing: not just for kids

I’m still wrapping my head around this; it’s a report about a bunch of medical professionals setting up a file-sharing forum for articles from non-open access (NOA) journals. Techdirt reports that the site had 100,000 users and that 83% of requested articles were shared—over 5000 articles in a 6-month period. I went to look at the original report and saw a lot of talk about OA vs. NOA journals, but, interestingly, no discussion of institutional repositories. I would love to see an analysis of how many of those articles, despite being published in NOA journals, were freely available online, to begin with.

More broadly, though, this seems like some sort of failure, on some level, by someone. Does the blame fall on publishers for charging too much? (Unsurprisingly, I’m inclined to suggest that’s a piece of the problem, yes. The study gives the average “value”—I’m going to use the term “cost,” instead—of an article as $30. Seems a bit steep, to me, given that the writing and editing were done for free, from the publisher’s standpoint.) Does the fault lie with libraries for failing to make interlibrary loan into a faster, better-used, better-marketed service? Maybe, but, then again, with this kind of volume, mightn’t libraries be running into cost and copyright pitfalls, anyway? I’ll show some ignorance, here: perhaps public libraries don’t offer article-level ILLs; I admit, I’ve never tried. On the other hand, it’s hard to say how many of these researchers already had access to academic or medical libraries that could get these articles for them and opted to go this route, anyway; I would assume a very small percentage, but what if I’m wrong? Do we blame institutions—and, yeah, academic libraries—for failing to build repositories of their scholars’ works? Maybe, a little, but a fair portion of the publishers in the biomedical fields seem (by my unscientific sampling) to insist on pre-print only archiving, as well as 6-month to 1-year embargoes. That’s a non-ideal scenario, even with 100% participation in institutional repositories, which is, itself, a pipe dream.

I thought this quote, from the original study, was pretty fascinating: “From the participants’ comments made in the forums, however, there does 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.” So, scientists acting like scientists are supposed to, sharing information freely? The devil, you say!

I don’t have any new solutions to offer—that I think social networking tools could make some of this discussion moot is probably no secret [though it may be worth its own post, later in the week]—so perhaps I shouldn’t go so far as to say this: journal publishers are now, more and more obviously, getting in the way of scientific progress. Perhaps not as directly as stupid intellectual property policies—companies owning genes and chemical formulas and the like—but, certainly, it’s happening. Scientific discussion should be open and accessible, and as libraries struggle with decreasing budgets, while publishers increase the price of journals, that discussion is getting more and more closed, forcing researchers to, in this case, build their own file-sharing networks, to get the information they need. This is a pressing issue for the library, scientific, and academic communities—which, I realize, overlap significantly, though I would argue that sometimes scientists-as-scientists are open to different solutions than scientists-as-academics: the bulk of my favored options require some changes in the tenure system, for instance.

At any rate, have a look at that study, and tell me what you think in the comments. (Maybe one day I’ll get Google Wave working with this blog, and we can chat about all of this in real-time.)

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  1. HPT

    Just with regard to the question of ILL for articles, when I was at CMU, a couple times I requested articles I couldn't get either online or in hardcopy through interlibrary loan, and received photocopies of them.

  2. Coral

    Yeah, an academic library at a research university should be able to get you any article you need. REALLY obscure stuff is harder, of course, but the lending network is world-wide.It does seem like CMU does a pretty good job letting people know about ILL. I didn't, but then, everything I needed was in IEEE Explore. (Or so I thought. With more time and library knowledge, I realize there were probably other resources available to me that I could have used. Ah, well.)

  3. thelady

    I assume either they are affiliated with a university with an under advertised ILL service or they are not in academia and do not have ILL service. I'm pretty sure any research supported by the National Library of Medicine grants have to be open access. We have an IR at my library and Electrical engineering has the most items in the repository because IEEE allows IRs to use their full text PDFs. People in other disciplines have complained to us about not having as many documents in the IR because of this. The American Chemical Society (ACS) is notorious for not allowing their full text in IRs.My library offers electronic delivery of ILL request in PDF format. There is a definite need to educate faculty and students about copyright, many of them sign their rights away to the publisher then assume they can do whatever with the full text when it is actually a violation of the publisher's license agreement.This reminds me of an article that was published a few years ago, "If the academic library did not exist we'd have to invent one".

  4. Coral

    Lots of medical libraries have ILL service, too. I realize that not every hospital has/subscribes to a medical library, but many do. (Also, medical libraries have their own service–I don't know if it is in place of Worldcat or of ILLiad, but I know there's some difference, there. Not sure if it matters, but it might.) And there's a public library pretty much everywhere, which brings me back to my question about article delivery through the public library, rather than academic or special…The NIH mandate for open access allows for a 1-year embargo by the publisher. Knowing the average age of the articles requested would be good, too. (Now I'm thinking of contacting the study's authors…)Agreed about educating people who are publishing about their rights and lack thereof. Though some institutional repository papers I was reading suggested that faculty are actually far more nervous about copyright than we expect; it's one of the big arguments they make when asked to contribute to an IR. "I could get in trouble."Even in the library field, we don't do a great job of remembering not to sign all of the paperwork without adding a rider allowing us to archive our work online. And not all of our publishers have clear OA policies, either.Do you guys do the checking in Sherpa/Romeo (I have the capitalization wrong, there) for your faculty, or is it their responsibility?

  5. thelady

    We check Sherpa/Romeo for them.

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