Here’s a bit of trivia to brighten your day:  Between 2000 and 2007, Chinese scientists published roughly one nanotoxicology paper for every ten million people in the country.  In contrast, US scientists published twenty-five nanotoxicology papers for every ten million citizens.

I know this because I have just read a fascinating assessment of nanotoxicology publications by Barbara Harthorn and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

You should read it.

Except that you can’t—unless you subscribe to the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, or work somewhere that does.  Or you are willing to fork out $34.00 for the paper.

Since leaving the lab nearly four years ago, my empathy with those without ready access to the scientific literature has grown.  With the exception of a pitifully small handful of publications I subscribe to, I now have to beg copies of interesting-looking papers from better-connected colleagues.  And I’m not alone in this… A couple of years back, science writer and MD Ben Goldacre wrote

“Between medical jobs with academic affiliations I’ve had to hustle logins from friends. There are times when I’ve had to use the London Underground as a way of transporting information into my brain instead of the internet. Even in the 20th century this would have been ridiculous.”

I manage—I have enough friends who can get hold of relevant papers.  And could always work something out with a willing research institution if the going got really tough.  But what about others who want a first-hand account of what is going on in science and technology—from the curious citizen to the budding scientist?  There’s this ideal that scientific knowledge should be available to everyone—a “Scientific Commons.”  Yet most people are forced to rely on second hand accounts of breakthroughs, filtered through institutional press offices and journalists.

This is fine for those without the time or interest to check the facts for themselves.  But there are plenty of people who would benefit tremendously from access to the original publications.

In fact, I’m not sure that true integration of science within society can ever happen while access to information is restricted to an elite few.  And while much published research will be beyond the ken of many, this should never be an excuse to deny access.

At this point you may be wondering what lit my fuse and led to this tirade.  Being completely honest here, I was a little tetchy at having to request a copy of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research paper from co-author Barbara Harthorn, rather than enjoy the instant gratification of direct internet access (and I must confess here: I think I have electronic access to this journal, although if I have, the subscription details are buried amongst a billion other on-line usernames and passwords—but, that’s another issue for another day).

What really set me off though was this passage in the paper:

‘These initial results [of the nanotoxicology literature survey] have significant implications for toxicologists, regulators and social scientists studying nanotechnology and society.  The diffuseness of the scholarly literature may challenge the abilities of the public and civil society to stay informed about the toxicological implications of nanomaterials, as keeping up to date with the literature requires subscriptions to a proprietary database, and not just access to a single or a few journals.” (Emphasis added)

How ironic that most people will not have direct access to a paper that flags this as a problem!

Fortunately, things are changing.  The number of open access journals is increasing—The Public Library of Science (PLOS, co-founded by Harold Varmus—one of Barack Obama’s principle science advisors) manages a number of such journals, as does Biomed Central.  And initiatives such as “Scientific Commons” are trying their best to increase the number of open access publications available on the web.

Another welcome move is open access to older papers.  Publications from research funded by the US National Institutes of Health are now required to be made publicly available on PubMed no later than 12 months after the date of publication.  Some journals are following suite by making older papers publicly accessible—the Journal Aerosol Science and Technology is a good example.  And some universities are beginning to embrace the open access movement—In 2008, Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted a policy requiring faculty members to allow the university to make their scholarly articles available free online. (although after a quick search while writing this blog, I couldn’t find anything yet on the University website).

Yet none of this helps the casual reader who wants to check the facts behind the story in the latest edition of New York Times, or the up-to-the-minute web-chatter.  And to be honest, even the open access stuff is pretty hard to find if you don’t know where to look.

Change will not be easy.  The established scientific publishers have supported peer review science for decades—centuries even in some cases—so as well as a mountain of institutional inertia to overcome, there is also something of a debt of gratitude within the academic community that comes into play.  Yet old-style publishing where the reader pays for the privilege of access is becoming increasingly untenable.  There is a growing non-academic population clamoring for access to new information.  And at the same time paradigm-shifting changes in information technology are undermining conventional publishing practices at an alarming rate.  The combination of the two suggests that scientific publishers will eventually need to re-invent themselves if they want to survive.

One way forward is to shift the cost of publishing from the reader to the writer (or the funding body).  It’s seems a good model, and one that is working for the likes of PLOS and Biomed Central—if you want your work to have an impact, you pay to have it published.  It means that the work is open access by default.  And with on-line publishing, there is no reason why publication fees should be particularly high.

But in the meantime, there are an awful lot of people out there who are still denied access to scientific information.  And at a time when science and technology are increasingly important for a smooth running society, that cannot be good.

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Postscript

I have to fess up—this is the second paper in a row of Barbara Harthorn’s that I have NOT written about (the first being the paper she recently co-authored with Nick Pidgeon in Nature Nanotechnology).  Sorry Barbara!

But now I have a dilemma—do I play along with the system and provide an incomplete (and probably inadequate) summary of a paper most people could understand in the original?  Or do I stick to my principles and eschew the summary?

Tough one!

While I think about it, those with access to the journal, can read the paper here:

Ostrowski, A. D., Martin, T., Conti, J., Hurt, I. and Harthorn, B. H. (2009). Nanotoxicology: characterizing the scientific literature, 2000–2007. J. Nanopart. Res. DOI:10.1007/s11051-008-9579-5.

And for those of you without full access… well, at least you can read the abstract.