Oh, at last! When I was a biology student, online publishing of scientific literature was just hitting the mainstream. I was excited to think that, in a few years when I was out in the world somewhere away from a university library, I would be able to browse through all this vast array of scientific knowledge and delve deeper into anything that intrigued me.
But even before I left the sheltered wonder of the university, I was quickly losing sight of my dream behind a wall of insurmountable subscription fees. No individual of modest means could possibly aspire to maintain subscriptions to more than a handful of journals. Yet important research papers are scattered across literally hundreds of journals, making it virtually impossible to stay broadly informed without membership in an institution that can afford the subscriptions. And where do those fees go? How could it possibly cost the publishers that much to put a journal online? There must be some enormous profits involved here.
Today, as I dreamed, I can browse through the entire vast array of newly published scientific literature right here at my computer in small-town Saskatchewan. But as soon as an article catches my interest, I come up against that subscription wall. Sometimes Google can find me something similar, but if I want the real thing, I have a choice between an absurd per-article download fee and a two-hour drive to Regina to read it at the university library.
Now, at last, there is an effort to change that. The Public Library of Science is offering a new model that makes scientific literature freely available to all. The Creative Commons website has an interview with one of its founders, Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, that lays out the rich potential and urgent need for this approach.
I almost want to be a scientist again.
UPDATE: SimplyTim has suggested another repository of free literature, in the medical and life sciences: PubMed Central. I took a quick glance down the first page of the journal title list, and decided I don't dare dig deeper there until the snow flies. Thanks Tim!
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