“But researchers have the access they need”

February 7, 2012

I read an article on the Times Higher Education website: Research intelligence – The emeriti seizing a late licence to roam.  It’s about how many retired academics are finding that, freed from the administrative responsibilities of their university jobs, they are able to be more fruitful in their research after retirement.

Interesting stuff, so I wanted to read the paper that the article is based on: Thody, Angela. 2011. Emeritus professors of an English university: how is the wisdom of the aged used? Studies in Higher Education, 36(6):637-653. doi:10.1080/03075079.2010.488721.  To its shame, the THE article gave only the title, not the whole reference, so that’s what I started with.

First try

Google’s top hit for the article title was this page on informaworld.com.  The link is broken.  Google wouldn’t have indexed it if it hadn’t been there, so evidently the page did exist, but subsequently vanished.  So — top marks there for commercial publishers’ curation and archiving role.

Second try

Next hit is for this page on ingentaconnect.com.  On the plus side, the page is at least there.  On the negative side, it offers to sell me the PDF for $50.43 plus tax.

No problem, though — I am affiliated with an awesome institution, the University of Bristol, which surely gives me institutional access.  After all, everyone knows that researchers have the access they need.  I sign in via Shibboleth, return to the page, and find a transformation!  Instead of offering to sell me the PDF for $50.43 plus tax, it now offers to sell me the PDF for £31.47 plus tax.  Evidently it now knows I’m British.  And evidently, “the access I need” as a palaeontologist doesn’t extend to journals about education.

Special bonus iniquity: I checked out ingentaconnect’s refund policy:

You may request the refund of a pay-per-view order you have submitted via the service under the following conditions:

1. there was a technical issue on the service which prevented successful delivery


2. you notify us that the article is no longer required and request cancellation within one day of the order being placed.

Note, “and” not “or”.  So if there is a technical issue that prevents successful delivery but you still want the article, then you lose your $50.43 plus tax.  Because of their technical fault.

Well, anyway.  At this point I think I would have been justified in giving up.  But because I wanted to chase right down into the rabbit hold, I went on to …

Third Try

The Google search result also offered this page on tandfoneline.com.  Again, the page hadn’t evaporated, which is a good start.  It offered me the option to “Buy now”, but didn’t tell me the price.  I was wary of hitting that button, as the “now” suggests a one-click purchase — never good when you don’t even know the price — but I went ahead because I was fairly sure that Taylor and Francis didn’t have my credit-card number.  That took me to another screen which offered me these baffling options:

Purchase options     Price *
SSH Article Price     GBP 23.00
Permanent access to this issue     GBP 213.00

What might the difference be between an SSH Article and Permanent Access?  “£190”, I answer myself sourly.  Beyond that, I have no idea.  Nothing on the page explains what SSH is: my best guess is that it’s a system that shows you the paper inside your browser, and that your access evaporates after some period.  But how long?  No idea.

But wait!  Might the University of Bristol come to my rescue after all?  I logged in via Shibboleth on this other site, and this time — bingo!  So it turns out “the access I need” does include education journals after all.  But only when accessed via this particular one of the three different online services that could potentially serve up the PDF.


I wonder how many people would have given up after trying to get access via institutional login on ingentaconnect.com?  (I would, usually; I was being more than usually bloody-minded today).

The fact that access is possible is really not good enough.  It should be easy.  Seamless.  Without barriers.  If I want to get hold of an article from, say Acta Palaeontological Polonica, things are much simpler.  Google for “A new troodontid theropod from the Late Cretaceous of central China”, hit the first link that comes up: bam, you’re done, there’s the PDF.

It’s the 21st century.  It’s not even the first decade of the 21st century any more.  Heck, it’s not even the start of the second decade.  We’re living in the Shiny Digital Future.  We know how to do this stuff.  All the paywall barriers are a waste of my time and effort, even when I have a route through.  The world should be better than this by now.  Part of me wants to cry out: why are we ever still talking about this?  It should be done.  Instead, we live in a world where corporations invest time, effort and money into building systems to make access harder — erecting a series on complex, confusing, misleading, ill-documented, poorly implemented, time-consuming barriers to access.

So.  Do researchers have the access they need?  Yes — maybe, sometimes, perhaps most of the time, so long as they try enough different routes, so long as they are at a suitable university, so long as the library happens to have a subscription to the journal you want, so long as you’re not graduated or retired or otherwise moved on, and provided you’re prepared to fritter away your research time wrestling with badly designed websites rather than actually, you know, researching.

In other words: no.


15 Responses to ““But researchers have the access they need””

  1. Well, things have gotten a bit better lately! No, I am not saying things are fine, not at all. But at least you can usually save yourself inter-library loans. That certainly must be enough for us researchers. Can’t make our lives too easy, mollycoddling us would mean that we loose the drive to work….. We shouldn’t demand more than one improvement per century, you know?

    In fact, if you calculate the wage paid to me per the time I waste on searching papers the funding agency gets a very bad deal.

  2. …not to mention those journals that restrict access to certain IP addresses (only). So you *have* to be on campus to read ANYTHING. Not even Shibboleth, Athens or VPN tunnels can help bore through the laborious paywalls with those journals!

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Journals not working with Athens or Shibboleth is pretty abject. Of course, those journals’ publishers might argue that it’s expensive and time-consuming to set up these authentication regimers, but then that’s the whole point: STOP WASTING YOUR TIME BUILDING IMPEDIMENTS TO ACCESS! Uh, sorry, got carried away, didn’t mean to shout.

    (But surely VPNs can solve the problem of IP-based authentication? Isn’t that what they’re for?)

  4. Not to quibble, but when you say you want access to be “easy[, s]eamless[, w]ithout barriers[,]” do you mean you want it to be free, or even cheaper? The access only requires punching in a credit card. Or, telling your institution that education journals should be covered in your institutional access pass, etc. It seems that you ran into some other barriers than just a corporation putting a pay fee in front of access to its product.

  5. Andy Farke Says:

    Excellent post – it’s important to look critically at the quality of service actually provided. Speaking of discoverability, Elsevier’s RSS feeds are still seriously borked. . .argh.

  6. nonsense!
    What Mike described is FOR-PAY access – and even that is a bother.

  7. Scott H Says:

    If I may offer an opinion on the long-term outlook – I think it will get worse before it gets better, but I think it will get much, much better. Big Publishing is basically in the same place as the music industry was with CDs before it all went digital, and where movie studios are just starting to hit now (really big files insulated film and TV a bit more).

    Basically, as the cost of distribution shrinks, consumers rightly expect the cost of access to shrink. But being stuck in the stock market fueled “we must grow both the top and the bottom line!!!” mentality the journal publishers have wanted to instead use the transition to grow their margins rather instead. What’s happened is they have sacrificed growing their sales base (hence widespread pdf sharing), so their current sales model (charge as much as humanly possible from a few customers – mostly institutions) has actually pivoted wildly away from the sustainable one (charge reasonable amounts for personal access, perhaps offset with advertising when you search or download the pdf).

    But they have a scapegoat – open access journals, and the individuals who dare to share their papers with people. They’ll use legal pressure where they can (expect more of this!) and whine like all get-out that their business model is under attack. Which is most certainly is, but that’s due to…oh what’s that word they like to throw around when it’s working in their favor….oh right: “capitalism”.

    In short, consumers (scientists) are going to continue to gravitate towards OA and online publications, because easy access to the data is actually the prime motivator in science (also, we have to think about our pocket books like anyone else). As a result, Big Publishing will eventually see the collapse of their business plan, and we’ll see a stochastic change to a more stable sales model as their revenues and margins both start to evaporate.

    When will that happen and what will it look like? I wish I had the answers to that. Movements like the “boycott Elsevier” speed it along to some degree, but their are pressures in both directions (e.g. wanting Klout….I mean a high Impact Factor), so it could take half a decade or 2-3 decades. Perhaps continuing to merge until there’s a single uber publisher can extend the life of the sales model by better leveraging economies of scale.

    But sooner or later it will shift (or they’ll file for bankruptcy and then the journals themselves will shift). I can imagine a site where nearly all journals participate that still charges institutions a hefty fee (perhaps less than today, but also providing universal access from institutional sign in sites), while individuals will get access via micro-transactions. You’d put in a credit card (or PayPal, or Google Wallet, or what have you), and if you find a paper you want you’ll get an Amazon-like “buy it now” price and a clearly listed price that will be in the couple of dollars range. Perhaps less in some cases. Since at this point there is almost certainly a 30:1 ratio (or more) of people who get a pdf from a researcher or friend rather than buy it, they stand to dramatically broaden the consumer base this way. And honestly, a lot of people will buy it.

    Perhaps such a site could also have a web-based citation manager built in for free for account-holders; they would almost certainly also serve ads (there’s quite a lot of money in biotech and pharmaceutical ads, probably less-so in paleo). And most people won’t mind paying the buck or two for a paper, nor mind the ads, as we’d be getting a product that is actually worth what is being charged.

    Something like this (obviously the details are a guess) is more or less inevitable, but it’s also more or less impossible to get to until Big Publishing is forced to financially. Today’s corporations aren’t encouraged to look ahead like this, that’s the job of start-ups. Instead, corporations have to jealously guard their top and bottoms lines, justify what they are doing to improve both numbers every three months. And they’ll throw around their cash on hand to gain political influence to try and extend their disappearing sales model as long as they can.

    Hmm…sorry, I didn’t mean to hijack SV-POW’s responses thread. I really ought to create a blog or something…

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Scott, never apologise for leaving thoughtful comments!

    I think your medium-term analysis is spot on: established corporations are driven by the bottom line, and piloted by executives who don’t expect to be around for more than a few years and who therefore optimise the business to yielding the best possible returns during those few years. By doing that, they steer into the icebergs of inevitability, but will be gone before they hit. This sadly seems to wired into the very nature of publicly traded corporations. I’ve been saying “sell your shares in Elsevier” for some years now. Obviously its year-on-year profits show I’ve been wrong in the short term; but I do think they are headed for a meltdown, and that conviction long predates the current boycott.

    But I think your long-term analysis, ending up with an iTunes-like approach to buying access, is nowhere near optimistic enough. Science is going to be free — not just zero cost, but liberated. It’s going to be that way (A) because that’s the most efficient way for us to get our work done; (B) because it’s the only way we can get certain kinds of word done, e.g. anything that involved text-mining; and (C) because funding bodies are going to mandate it. For more and better thoughts along these lines, see Cameron Neylon’s excellent blog article The Research Works Act and the breakdown of mutual incomprehension.

    Unfortunately, to get to the medium-term and long-term, we have to go through the short-term, and this is going in involve lots of violent death-throes with plenty of collateral damage. Expect a flurry of lawsuits before Elsevier and their buddies finally croak.

  9. […] to justify their claim of ownership of those results, and to do that by maximizing costs (whether hassle is something they deliberately set about to create or just a stupid side-effect of the roadblocks […]

  10. stephen.kinsella Says:

    Not wishing to be obtuse, but why not just google the authors’ name, and email them asking for a copy? My institution doesn’t have access to many decent publications because of funding issues. So I simply ask the authors. Normally I get the paper, plus a conversation with some one who is delighted someone is reading their work.

    I know the point you are making. I’m just saying there are more efficient and more interesting ways to go about getting the paper.

  11. blameitonthesatellite Says:

    Ah now see your problem was starting with google, do this:

    Goto Web Of Knowledge (webofknowledge.com)
    Copy and paste “Emeritus professors of an English university: how is the wisdom of the aged used” into the top box
    Select “title” in the dropdown
    Hit Search
    Hit the ugly Get it! icon
    Select one of the two repositories which UoB subscribe to which have this journal (both work)
    Hit ‘view full text’

  12. Mike Taylor Says:


    You’re right that asking the author for a copy is often the best solution, as we described in an earlier article.

    But that is a workaround — and it’s stupid that we have to workarounds. I want to read the author’s paper; the author wants me to read the paper. So why the song and dance? It’s entirely for the benefit of publishers, and it simply isn’t our job as researchers to keep them in business — it’s their business to justify their existence by providing a service that we need at a price we’re willing to pay.

    What’s happened is that we’ve slipped into a world where there are two kinds of links. 90% of then, when you click on them, take you to what you want to read. The other 10% take you to a barrier. What are we doing with this two-class system? Very simple: we are slowly but surely teaching the world that it’s a waste of time trying to read scholarly literature. That they’re better off going to Wikipedia or blogs. Is that the message that we as a community want to send?

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    blameitonthesatellite, your suggestion is instructive. I did exactly as you suggested, logging into Web Of Science when prompted. When I landed on the Taylor and Francis page that has this article, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03075079.2010.488721, I clicked on the Download button and … was instantly told to pay £23 for SSH Article or £213 for Permanent Access To This Issue.

  14. blameitonthesatellite Says:

    Ah well you need to be within the UoB network or proxy for it all to work seemlessly.

  15. […] we please put an end to this one? Researchers do not have the access they need. Share this:FacebookRedditTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted by Mike Taylor […]

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