Map showing ebola outbreak
WHO Ebola 2014 outbreak map of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

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.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is director of Ithaka S+R’s Library and Scholarly Communication program. He leads a team of methodological experts and analysts that provides strategic consulting, surveys, and other research projects, for academic libraries, scholarly publishers and intermediaries, museums, and learned societies. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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9 Thoughts on "Discovery and Access in Light of the Ebola Outbreak"

What silliness. I am sure at the time Liberia had more pressing problems than taking action on something that might happen. There were articles on terrorist attacks against the US – need more be said?

Did anybody read the New York Times’ op-ed? The articles indicating that Ebola could be or become endemic in Liberia were from the 1980s. So if someone from 1985 were to have written that computer hacking was going to be a big deal someday, would we sit back now while all our credit cards are being filched and say, “Well, we were warned”? And that the only problem with modern hacking was our lack of access and discoverability to articles from the 1980s about it?

But the combination of civil war and poverty is present in many places, whereas endemic outbreaks of ebola are much less common. So I think the diagnosis is more complicated than that.

I am not suggesting that the civil wars and poverty caused the outbreak. The NYT piece seems to say that these factors made an effective response impossible, even had the old articles been known of.

Weren’t you saying that civil war and poverty were the real reason the outbreak became endemic?

Still worth correcting the record though–some are using this as an attempt to scapegoat publishers, blaming them (and the subscription business model) for all of the world’s ills. Not only was cost of access not an issue here, the publishers in question had gone out of their way to create a program to make sure this information was freely available to those who needed it.

How effective that program is, is an important question, but arguments about open access are not relevant here.

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