Note: This is an old post that was supposed to have been auto-published on September 19, 2011 (!), but didn’t for some unknown reason. I found it in my list, and decided to go ahead and publish it today, because the message still remains valid.

My professional and personal interests often require me to browse through many scientific journals of various disciplines. I don’t always remember – I admit, shamefacedly – how fortunate I am, to be a member of a University system with an amazing collection of biomedical journals. The Hopkins library system, a fantastic system by any count, allows me online access to a huge array of journals when I am at work, and even when I am at home (by remotely logging in to the library system).

Yet, every so often, I become acutely aware of the systemic problem – the largely prevalent closed access publication system, because of which the results of Federally funded research work – and therefore, by extension, funded by our tax dollars – are not accessible to the general public. In the closed-access system, if an individual wishes to read a particular journal article, s/he needs to either be a member of some institution which has purchased an institutional subscription (for a massive fee – therefore, difficult for many smaller institutions in these times of cash crunch), or purchase an individual article for upwards of 15, 20, or 25 dollars. If one needs to follow up on the references, well, tough luck in absence of lucre.

I am elated when I hear about heartening news such as this: Librarians rebel against pricey science journals, embrace open-access pubs like PLoS. Also, a brilliant, brilliant policy framework is the NIH’s current Public Access Policy, which ensures NIH-funded research is accessible to everyone in order to enable advancement of scientific knowledge and betterment of health. This past November, NIH had made a commitment to enforce this policy, which seems already to have borne fruit, according to a recent Nature News report.

Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics on Twitter), an evolutionary biologist, microbiologist and genomics researcher, and a Professor at University of California at Davis, is the Academic Editor in Chief of PLoS Biology. He has been a long-time Open Access and Open Science advocate, and has earlier written on the inequities of Nature in scuttling the Open Access process. But Nature Publishing is most certainly not the only one to blame.

The event which had originally prompted me to write this post occurred when I tried to access from home the following article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). It was on course of a serious Facebook conversation (Yes, I do have those sometimes!), and I didn’t really want to have to go through the entire rigmarole of signing in to the Hopkins system, getting to the library URL, searching for the journal and so forth. I had looked up the paper on PubMed and was overjoyed to note that it was available as Free full text. “Excellent!” I had thought, “And why not? It’s a 1996 article. Even the journals published by the ASM become freely accessible after 6 months or so.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when – upon clicking “NEJM Free Full Text” – I got to this!

nejm article access issue
Click to embiggen.

Does this make any sense whatsoever? Especially, for a 1996 comment on a 1996 article?

Update 1: Prof. Eisen had alerted me on Twitter to the possibility of this being an IT error. So, I did the decent thing and sent in an email to their contact address. I stated, “This 1996 article (PMID: 8552142) and the comment on it (PMID: 8552150) are both listed on PubMed as “Free Full Text”. Yet, when I click the NEJM Full Text link on the top right corner, I get to a preview page which asks for subscription, or a fee of $15 for either article. Is this some kind of a mistake or website error, or am I really expected to pay $15 for a 1996 article or editorial comment on an article?” I had hoped they’d respond.

Update 2: Umm… No. They didn’t. And today, before publishing this post, I checked that paper again. One consolation: now, instead of Free Full Text (as in the screenshot), it now says simply “NEJM Full Text” on PubMed – and the going rate is still… you guessed it, $15.