Over the past few weeks, there has been an interesting set of discussions about whether the Liberian part of the Ebola outbreak this winter was foretold and therefore could have been stopped earlier. Writing an op-ed in the New York Times, several researchers noted that they recently “stumbled across” an article indicating the reasonable likelihood that Liberia would be faced with cases of Ebola, which turned out to have been one of several studies predicting Liberia being in the zone of likely exposure for the virus. Public health officials had not acted on this known likelihood. The question is why.
These authors focused on the fact that the study in question, one of several dating back 30 years that reached similar conclusions, was conducted by Europeans rather than in partnership with Liberians, limiting, in their view, its ability to be incorporated into the public health practices of that country. But several others pick up on a line in that article and note that these scientific conclusions were published in traditional journals, rather than under open access conditions. In their view, it would therefore have been onerous if not impossible for the nation most directly in need of this information to access it.
It turns out that at least some of the articles in question, even though published in traditional journals, should have been accessible at no cost to Liberian researchers and health officials under the terms of the Research4Life program. It is unclear whether the relevant institutions registered to set up access. But even if they did so, I wonder if this is enough.
Having recently written about some of the various impediments facing researchers even when seeking to access materials their universities have licensed, I couldn’t help but wonder about whether researchers using Research4Life services face similar barriers. Can a researcher use the increasingly advanced discovery tools and practices that so many of us take for granted and then link seamlessly to free and reduced cost access models such as those provided by Research4Life? While the HINARI health resources available through Research4Life are extensive, they could not suffice as a complete view on the world, and therefore HINARI provides training courses in how to use PubMed and Google Scholar as starting points. But, does starting from Google, Google Scholar, PubMed, or other more appropriate search services lead to a no-access dead-end?
In improving the ability of a nation like Liberia to cope with a virulent outbreak, strengthening civic institutions and healthcare infrastructure is probably of greatest importance. As we think about the scholarly literature, efforts to address access barriers are also significant. To maximize the availability and impact of scholarship, however, it is vital that we link discovery together with access.
A slightly earlier version of this piece was first posted on the Ithaka S+R blog. Thanks to David Crotty, Jill O’Neill, and Richard Poynder, for an exchange on Twitter that stimulated the original post.