The Broader Audience for Research Results

While libraries are an important component of research information dissemination, it is important to remember that there are many constituencies who lack access to libraries:

1)      Patients – in these days of cost containment and intrusion of insurers in care decisions, patients need to be, and are increasingly interested in being, their own advocates.  Most patients do not have ready access to a fully subscribed university library, but they need access to the literature to be effective advocates for their own care.  While many medical centers have patient resources centers that will provide a limited number of papers in hardcopy form, this is somewhat akin to the old days of inter-library loan and is not close to an effective substitute for direct electronic access to the relevant literature.

If we want community support for biomedical research, making the results of biomedical research accessible to patients is a critical step.

2)     Community health care providers – these physicians and nurse need to keep their own knowledgebase current and need to be effective advocates for their patients.  Again, most lack access to university libraries.  Yes, there are a large number of free “throw away journals” supported by advertising, but the editorial content of many of these journals reflects the sources of their advertising revenue.

If we want community health care providers to support biomedical research, making research results accessible is again a critical step.

3)     Small businesses and start-ups – while many start-ups may retain some personnel with some access to university libraries, this tends to be transient and unreliable.  Major pharmaceutical companies may be able to afford broad coverage subscriptions for their research staff, but this is not the case for most small to midsize businesses.  These small and midsize businesses are the real engines of economic growth and need to be considered in public policy.

This is getting repetitious, but business access to research results is an economic development issue as well as an issue for support of scientific research.

The current publication system, with expensive bundled subscriptions that only major research universities can afford, reinforces the ivory tower mentality on both sides.  Academics complain that business ignores them, but what do you expect if you publish in a journal not accessible to most businesses.  Conversely, businesses complain that academics are introspective and unconcerned about development and commercialization, but what do you expect when in many cases businesses are locked out of reading what is happening in academics.   The fact that universities are increasingly aggressive in pursuing intellectual property, and even suing their former faculty who have moved into commerce, does not help matters.

The old days when science in general and biomedical science in particular could depend on a few stalwart defenders in Congress are over.  Research funding is just another discretionary budget item in the eyes of many politicians.  Rebuilding ties with business and the community is critical to sustaining support for research funding, and the need for access to research results goes well beyond the academic community.

As has been pointed out, the high profit margin multinational publishers are struggling to find a sustainable business model in the era of electronic publishing.  I grew up in Rochester New York and Eastman Kodak was extremely generous to our community, but I am not going to argue that digital photography should have been suppressed until Kodak found a way to transition out of their film business.  The reality of modern business is that you innovate or die.  The publishers had a good run over the last 20 years, but if open access publishing is a better solution for the community, the publishers need to find their own future.

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