During the first week of December, Nature took a measured step forward in expanding access to high-value scientific literature when the publication announced that research papers from that journal would be made accessible to the public for reading via the Readcube platform if existing subscribers chose to share a link with friend or colleague. The announcement met with equally measured enthusiasm as open access advocates were dissatisfied with system constraints intended to prevent unauthorized diffusion of content outside of that platform.
The Nature announcement contained a quote from Managing Director Timo Hannay characterizing the program as “a convenient, legitimate alternative that allows researchers to access the information they need and the wider, interested public access to scientific knowledge, from the definitive, original source”. (Part of that wider access includes links provided to selected media outlets for use in their coverage of scientific, technical and medical research published in Nature.) Hannay’s blog entry for December 5 provides some additional background on the thinking behind this pilot initiative. Given the popularity of of social networks as a mechanism for content discovery by scientists, faculty and students, one can see the logic in Nature’s approach. By enabling such capability for reading and sharing, they ensure that their content remains visible and available to an interested audience that might otherwise be drawn away to such platforms as Academia.edu, ResearchGate or Mendeley.
Advocates of open access immediately criticized Nature and its parent company, Macmillan, for this form of “fauxpen access” due to speed bumps hindering further “use” of the material. Readers are not permitted to download or print the full text of an article, or even a simple cut-and-paste for purposes of quotation. Peter Murray-Rust, UK chemist and high-profile open access advocate, noted as well that Nature had failed to build a mobile-friendly version of the site which might preclude practical access to the content by those in the Global South who tend to rely more heavily on mobile devices for accessing Web-based services.
As I hope I’ve made clear, the Nature announcement can be viewed in a variety of lights. On the one hand, it expands access to some portion of the most important and properly-vetted scientific findings. At the same time, the adopted approach leverages protective means that may hinder legitimate downstream use. Reasonable people may disagree as to which aspect outweighs the other.
But there was one aspect I found objectionable in the commentary by OA advocates and that was what appeared to be casual exploitation of the needs of the visually impaired. Multiple blog entries and tweets noted the failure in Nature’s system to support access for that segment of the public. However, these were terse notations, lacking explanations as to whether this was due to incompatibility issues on the particular platform or caused by some other flaw in the system. None of the nay-sayers went into much detail, and yet such incompatibility hadn’t surfaced in earlier open access manifestos — Budapest, Berlin, Bethesda — as being a key concern. Not knowing much about screen reader applications or similar accessibility supports for the visually impaired, I wondered just how big of an issue is this? And for whom?
Even as a casual investigator, I could find specifics on the visually impaired, such as the World Health Organization’s data that says globally, there are 285 million people suffering from visual impairment. Looking a little closer at just one segment of that population, I was able to retrieve an article in Nature quoting NSF statistics (collected in the year, 2000) that put the total percentage of the disabled in the STEM workforce as being about 7% or just under 400,000 individuals. Note that this is not a number encompassing just the visually impaired, but a total of those working in STEM research fields with any form of physical disability. Another result of that casual investigative research linked to a 2007 article from Science which noted that “…the employment rate for scientists and engineers with disabilities is 83 percent, much better than the estimated 26 percent for the overall US population with disabilities.” Which is why content and technology providers reading the Scholarly Kitchen blog should be re-evaluating their obligation to the needs of this guy! Standard business rationalizations for slow response (limited corporate resources, insufficient ROI, etc.) are, in my view, unsatisfactory when you factor in the higher concentration of those affected in the workforce.
That said, it is equally poor form on the part of OA advocates to draw upon the visually impaired for political expediency. Should any advocacy group equate the barriers to access faced by the visually impaired to the barrier posed by a semi-permeable pay-wall? Is the disabling of article downloads in any way comparable to the lack of a screen reader?
If advocating for the disabled is important to the open access community, there is data being collected about the disabled in the STEM workforce that could be better used in moving content providers to action. It can and has been done. As an example of proven results, some might recall the advocacy movement surrounding the “book famine”, driving the current ratification process of the WIPO June 2013 Marrakesh Treaty. Advocacy in that realm made a difference and there was response from the information community.
My question to open access supporters is “Have you considered how trivializing this particular need for access undercuts your advocacy?” Enlist the aid of one competent librarian at your institution in assembling meaningful data about a truly under-served population, and then leverage that data to win support and drive needed change. Publish a well-researched blog entry on gaps in accommodation for those facing access barriers in your particular lab (ideally without resorting to maudlin sentiment) and thereby deepen the value of your public criticism. Prove that you are intentional advocates for a segment of your own workforce and scholarly community.
To do less is exploitative and unworthy of the open access movement.