After working with open source and/or free software (I’ll let the purists argue the difference there), it is jarring to look up scientific papers in the real world for my real job (electrophysiologist). It costs money to read these papers! The results of scientific research, intended to better the world and spread knowledge, costs money to read! Of course, you say, it costs money to do the science, so why not? Because the money you are paying to read an article online or in a journal does not go to the researchers who did the study! They are funded by the government or grants from various institutions or drug companies to do the research. When they submit an article to a journal, they don’t get paid. They sign over the copyright to the journal, which then charges for a subscription or for access to the article. The reviewers who review the article for acceptance into the journal also don’t get paid. They do their job for free, with the hope that doing a lot of reviews will improve their status and get them on some journal’s editorial board, where, again, they will not be paid for their services. So from the scientist’s point of view, besides perhaps an idealist view to improve the world by furthering scientific research, the benefit from doing studies is status based, much like in the open source software community. Yes there are financial rewards for improvement in status, such as getting invited to give paid talks, or getting employed by some biomedical research firm, but the same is true in the open source world. The villains are the publishers. Certainly there was more justification for paying for journals when the only medium for publication was dead trees. Now everything is available online (how about getting rid of the dead tree version?), and publication costs are minimal. Yet if you truly wanted access to all major publications, just in EP alone, you would be subscribing to at least 10 journals, each costing several hundred dollars a year. This is ridiculous — a hurtle for almost every one who needs this information. Even those doctors who subscribe to most of the major journals will find they need to look up some article in some more obscure journal. When it pops up online with a price tag, isn’t it tempting to just peruse the abstract and accept the possibly flawed conclusions, than take out your credit card and examine the actual methods and results?
This is the 21st century. Ignorance appears to run rampant over much of the world, including if not especially the United States. The present peer-reviewed process for publication of scientific studies is a good one. But let’s get rid of middle-man publisher in the age of the Internet. Knowledge should be free.