AAAS – Blocking Access to the Scientific Literature Even When They Say It Is “Free”

UC Davis professor Jonathon Eisen should be knighted for winning his battle to obtain “free access” to his own 1999 paper.

…And finally I had it. It took about an hour. This may seem minor to many out there but it seems inappropriate to me. This paper represented hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of work funded by the Department of Energy and was published in 1999. The goal of the work was to share knowledge. And this is a major roadblock to sharing that knowledge. Plus, all the restrictions on use and reuse mean that anyone wanting to share the knowledge with others also is restricted. The agreements imply that I should not use anything from the paper in a talk or a class or in any way. There is no mention of Fair Use or any other hint that it would be OK to share the material for educational or scholarly purposes. And who knows what crap I am going to get sent to the email address I used for this registration.

So – why are there all these restrictions? I presume, to make AAAS money in some way. Is that a bad thing? Well, in principle I am all for publishers making money. I subscribe to many newspapers. I subscribe to many magazines. I buy lots and lots of books. I pay for music and movies and other works. I don’t download anything illegally. So why not just accept that people should pay for scientific papers? Well, because this paper, and 1000s and 1000s of others are different than all the other works I list above. Owen White and I (with some help from some others) wrote this paper. AAAS and Science did little except handle the peer review and do some copy editing. They just simply do not deserve the rights they are claiming to this article and to all the others. And as a society supposedly for the “advancement of science” it seemed to me that they should make it easier to access the old literature. They could certainly make all papers published more than 12 months ago freely and openly available and deposit them in Pubmed Central. It would be incredible beneficial to science and to scientists. But they do not. Is this in the interest of the “advancement of science”? Unquestionably no. But I guess they have decided it is in the interest of the “advancement of Science” where the journal and money for the society is the goal and the advancement of science is lost in the ether.

In the end, I deeply regret having ever published in Science. 15 years after publishing this paper I would definitely say it would have been better to have published in another journal – one that makes papers more openly and freely available. I cannot change the past. But I will not support AAAS or its activities in the present or the future unless they change policies and practices.

If you are an academic you really have to read Jonathon’s complete account, especially if you have free access through your university library to most everything behind the “academic paywalls”. If you are a civilian you already know how bad it is to be “outside the wall”. I deal with it every day, it sucks.

Full disclosure about the PLOS Mafia: Jonathan Eisen is the brother of open access journals PLOS Co-Founder and UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen. Jonathan Eisen is also PLOS Biology Advisory Board Chief. Here is a 16 minute video interview of the brothers on the 10th anniversary of PLOS Biology. Thank you PLOS!