The access paywall of many scientific journals is a significant barrier to a rapid, efficient process of securing many peer-reviewed ecology and science articles. Recently, I needed to assess the state-of-the-art for animal camera trapping in wildlife ecology. I used google scholar and web of science to populate a list of papers to read. I was ‘behind the paywall’ at a university IP address. Even with this barrier removed, it was a challenge. I wanted to pull down a total of 20 papers, and only 60% of these were readily available because even with the exorbitant subscription fees the university library pays, some journals were not included. I realized that few wildlife ecologists and managers have even the limited level of access that I had to these very applied papers. This is a problem if we want evidence-based conservation and management of natural systems to prevail. There are numerous solutions of course including contacting the authors directly, searching for it online and hoping you get lucky to find it posted somewhere, checking researchgate, and joining a few other similar access author-based portals. There are two other simple solutions of course to engage managers – share with them directly when it is in print and encourage them to join a service like researchgate. Identifying managers interested in our work and sending it to them is a form of scientific communication and outreach. We need to do it. However, I had an even more broad public outreach idea – use university libraries as public access research portals.
University libraries pay subscription fees to many publishers. Leverage this access to run open science or open paper days. In my experience, even with a temporary guest ID on wifi at most university campuses, one is able to access their full offerings of peer-reviewed publications. Universities could use this access and do even more – educate on peer review and show off all the incredible research that more often than not taxpayer dollars fund.
1. DayUse Research-IDs. University libraries are increasingly digital repositories of information. Show this off to the public, the parents, and local applied researchers by offering guest-research IDs for a day at time for the public to browse holdings.
2. Notifications for digital research content. University libraries are increasing more like digital cafes than physical holdings of books. Advertise the resources that are available behind this paywall to all users, regularly, when they are online. Notifications/alerts, additional linking to primary research from courses and less on textbooks, and potential (non-obtrusive) pop-ups within the network for students on new research developments.
3. Open-paper public days. University libraries should run access days to teach the public about modern bibliometric search tools, explain the peer-review process, explain the publishing process, and show/allow folks to look up primary research that interests them. There will always be a topic someone needs to know about and a journal for it. Most importantly, these days will promote scientific literacy and also potentially provide fuel to new pay models or even better different profit models for academic publishers. If non-academics that pay taxes fully comprehended how much awesome research is out there in this academic stream that they never get to see, access, and pay for through tax dollars, it is hard not to imagine they would not want to see big changes.
The function of a university library
University libraries can still look like this.
More often that not university libraries instead look like massive digital cafes or computer labs.
The problem with all the information in the ether and behind these paywalls is that this intangibility hides the depth of the resource and extent that information could and should be available more broadly. I love the ‘learnings common’ philosophy that is evolving in many university libraries. I am just concerned that it is not reaching far enough out – at least to the parents of the students that attend the university.
University library websites have improved dramatically and feel more contemporary. However, there is a limited signal of the extent of the digital research that are held and no indication of how the public might access even a tiny bit of this infrequently to learn. I recognize public libraries and university libraries are not quite the same thing, but why do they have to be so different. Can they partner, co-evolve, and reduce the paywall limitation to the research that matters for better decisions at least for health and the environment?
My best guess is that university libraries thus provide three significant functions in this domain.
1. Provide access to research.
2. Provide a space to access and do research.
3. Train and educate on how to do research.
As a researcher, the first is the most critical to me. As an educator, all three are important to my students.
I recognize all of this misses the point – research should be open. Primary researchers should strive to be OA all the time with our work, but I recognize that there are reasons why we can not necessarily achieve this goal quite yet. Journals can also work towards this end too.
In interim, much of research needed to make the best possible decisions is out there now – i.e. where and how to deploy animal cameras for conservation this field season for my team – and the natural now is changing rapidly.
I want science to help. To do so, we need to be able to see it. Now.