Paywalls and lost knowledge

It’s taken me a while, but I now have a system for keeping up with (however poorly) the exponentially growing scientific literature. I’ll expound more on my method of choice in another post, but no matter how fast I try to get at processing papers, new and old, one thing disrupts my flow more than any other: paywalls.

Every scientist knows them well. You’re reading papers, and you see a detail that piques your curiosity enough to check the reference. You then type as much of the title as you care to into Google and click on the first link that looks like it might have a manuscript behind it. Oh no, it’s just Pubmed. But it has links to the full text! Click.

Quickly you scan for a PDF download link. But there’s a number next to it. For the low, low price of $28.00, this article could be yours! Or you could “rent” it for $4.00, whatever that means.

I have roughly 400 articles in my Zotero library, and it’s growing fast. Luckily I’m privileged to have access to ASU‘s library subscriptions for most (though certainly not all) journals, but this requires me to engage in further gymnastics to use the proxy server to get access.

By the time I’ve pulled an article (or more likely several) into my library, I’ve forgotten the context of why I cared to find it in the first place. I may have jotted down a note or two, but the full moment is lost, possibly forever. What’s worse, though I may be able to scrap most of my thoughts back together and carry on with chasing the rabbit down the idea hole, imagine being a student at a smaller university with a less-endowed library. That idea that led to the chase may never find what it needs to bother pursuing.

Every paywall represents an opportunity lost, if not several. They are plaque in the arteries of science, slowing down everyone. Luckily the scene is changing with the efforts of the open access movement. It’s certainly time.

— david

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