Access to research: Nobody in the history of the world has ever liked raisins. NOBODY!!

March 8, 2016

THE STORY SO FAR: Erin McKiernan can’t get access to the research she needs in Mexico, Mohammad M.M.H can’t get it in Jordan, and Nora Turoman can’t get it in Serbia. Meanwhile, Christy Collins is in America, but can’t get the research she needs to understand her son’s health condition because she’s not a full-time academic. Josephine Hellberg is a full-time academic — at the University of Oxford, even — but also doesn’t have access to the research she needs. Oh, and the richest university in the world can’t afford its scholarly subscriptions.

We now take a detour to the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the comments section of  The Scholarly Kitchen. That site has always been a mixed pleasure at best, but in the last few days I’ve found myself unable to look away from the car-crash that’s been going on in the comments* on the recent Sci-Hub post. What I’m seeing — over and over and over again — is the utterly specious claim that everyone who needs access to research has that access; and that those who don’t have access don’t need it.

I know, I know — it sounds impossible that anyone could be so cloth-eared, so impervious to reality, as to make that claim. But don’t take my word for it. Read the comments for yourselves:

David Wojick writes:

I personally doubt that there are large numbers of people who (1) have the expert knowledge required to read and benefit from the scholarly literature but who (2) cannot find a way to access what they need. The arguments I have seen to this effect are completely unconvincing.

Harvey Kane follows up:

Mike I don’t know how to break this to you but it is not the millions but rather the dozen or so.

I thought Jason Lowther’s tweet was a good response: “Wow – what a coincidence that I know them all personally. I’ve had three local government practitioners raise this THIS WEEK”. But apparently not:

The list of supposed millions that you link to embodies an absurd model of the diffusion of scientific knowledge. This is one of the fundamental fallacies of OA, namely that non-experts should read journals. […] Only a few people can understand the typical journal article. (Local government officials are certainly not among them.)

(This will come as a surprise to Jason, who is a local government official currently engaged in a Ph.D on how research can influence policy.)

Toby Green pointed out that “40% of OECD population is educated to tertiary level, which means there are millions capable of reading much scholarly literature” and linked to data supporting this. Impressive? Again, no:

Having a tertiary degree does not make one capable of understanding a scientific article, far from it.

At this stage in the discussion, Christy Collins stepped in to explain just one of the many reasons why non-academics might need access. Christy has a child who suffers from a rare genetic condition, M-CM. She  has educated herself to understand this condition and leads a support-and-advocacy group for other parents in the same situation. I urge you to read her comment on the Scholarly Kitchen post, as it’s a model of polite restraint and careful explanation. Surely that would be enough to sway the Kitcheners? Not a bit of it, according to Wojick:

Christy, keep in mind that the issue here is a need so compelling that it justifies the forced restructuring of the science journal industry. I do not think that supporting political advocacy meets that high threshold requirement

Then Harvey Kane steps in to publishersplain why Christy can’t possibly care about whether articles are open or not:

Christy: I looked at your site and you have a list of papers. Whether open or not could or could not be a concern to your audience, their decisions are theirs.

There is plenty more like this — check out for example the sub-thread arising from Mickey Mortimer’s contribution. I could go on all night, but I won’t because this is making my guts tired. I will highlight just one more exchange:

David Wojick says:

That everyone should read journals is simply a fallacy.

I reply:

And yet, people inconveniently keep wanting to read journals. A fact that must surely put some kind of a dent in your hypothesis? Or do you just conclude that they are all mistaken in wanting to read the journals?

Harvey Kane responds:

Mike just who wants to read journals? I know of no one except those involved in the topic of the journal.

Which is just … I can’t … Well — I mean to say — what? How is it possible for anyone to hold this position towards the back-end of a discussion that’s already encompassed Christy Collins’ need for medical research, Mickey Mortimer’s need for palaeontology research, links to the Who Needs Access website and to Harvard’s Your Story Matters collection?

Then I realised how very simple the explanation was: these people are simply impervious to evidence. It just doesn’t matter to them.

And once I’d realised that, I twigged why the whole shape of the discussion felt so strangely familiar to me: I’d seen in before in this Basic Instructions cartoon:


And this, it seems, is the entire basis for the argument often found at the Scholarly Kitchen that no-one other than career academics needs access to research:

  1. Make claims that are so outrageous that your opponent will be left sputtering in disbelief rather than refuting your claims.
  2. Make them prove their point beyond all possible doubt. When they can’t, take it as proof of your point.
  3. (Not pictured) Simply ignore all evidence.
  4. Later, even if you lost the argument, say that you won.

The only way they deviate from the Basic Instructions script is by choosing a topic of enormous importance, with immense ramifications for millions of people.

The Nobody-In-The-History-Of-The-World-Has-Ever-Liked-Raisins strategy (hereafter, the NITHOTWHELR Strategy) is how these legacy-publishing relics are able to remain living in their dream world, in the face of all the evidence.

From now on, every time I hear someone claiming that everyone who needs access to research has it, I will just think to myself:

Nobody in the history of the world has ever liked raisins. NOBODY!!

Because that’s all they’re saying.


*In the interests of fairness, note that these commenters do not speak for the The Scholarly Kitchen — although Wojick, at least, is a 30-post veteran author on that blog.

19 Responses to “Access to research: Nobody in the history of the world has ever liked raisins. NOBODY!!”

  1. Pandelis Says:

    Hi Mike, I really don’t have the patience to read the entire conversation at Scholarly Kitchen, that’s why I am asking you here. Is the discussion centred on non-scholars wanting to read journal articles? Has anyone mentioned the professional researchers whose libraries cannot afford journals? Like Harvard researchers for example?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    That aspect has been much less prevalent in the 255-and-counting comments on the Four Horsemen post. I’m not sure whether it’s been mentioned there at all.

    Of course, you could always pop over there and weigh in.

  3. Thanks Mike. The “those who don’t have access don’t need it” argument is as wrong as it gets. You have picked this apart very well and I support your point. From my personal experience as an Arts and Hums academic I needed access to the science literature when I read a book claiming to be the best on gluten free diets for autistic children. My kids Mum was obsessing over this book claiming scientific research demonstrated a heroin-like response to gluten (all fully cited). I was able to use my access to check the science being quoted and whilst I didn’t understand the science itself I could read the clear recommendations and conclusions by the author. I could then see that the scientist in question had updated their research subsequently with new results refuting their previous results, that they felt the sample size was too small etc. I was able to use this to calm fears, to become more reasoned in our treatment of our son and to debunk some bad use of the science. If I had not had privileged access it would have been prohibitively expensive to find this out.
    Thanks for the posting. Simon

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for your story, Simon — a great example of how research gets used in ways other than to support more research.

  5. Marcin Says:

    Can it get any more disgusting…?

    Sadly, bet your a** it will.

  6. paleoaerie Says:

    I think you are quite right about their imperviousness to reason. I don’t know a single researcher who has not had to resort to begging the author or friends for a copy of an article they needed because they didn’t have access to it or simply had to go without a reference completely. I have also personally fielded numerous requests from nonacademics trying to get copies of papers they wanted to read for various purposes, including personal health questions, historical information, anatomy for art, specific information for stories from some really diligent authors, and simple curiosity, among other reasons. There is even the occasional secondary school student on a science fair project (and sometimes just because they want to, I know, hard to believe, but it happens) looking to read actual scientific literature. It really takes an arrogant shit to think only academics can and should read scientific articles.

  7. David Crotty Says:

    Thanks for the caveat at the end Mike. We do not have any control over who leaves comments on our site (other than moderation to eliminate spam and occasionally for tone). As you note, the folks you are arguing with are not representative of the opinions of those who blog for the site, and the fact that they are two retirees and one person who is not a publisher should indicate that they are not representative of publishers as a whole.

  8. Peter Suber Says:

    Hi Mike. Hear hear. For more on the delusion that all who need access already have access, see the section of my book [ ] on access for lay readers [ ].

  9. Karen Shashok Says:

    Thanks Mike. Your introductory paragraphy (The Story So Far)summarizes the situation well even for those of us who lack a tertiary degree.

    (Good translators who work with research texts have known for a long time that the content is not that hard to understand. It can be harder to understand than it needs to be because of sloppy writing and poor editing, but readers [patients, caregivers, curious outsiders, whoever] intent on understanding it will almost always manage, degree or no degree.)

    Why give something away (data, information, knowledge) when you can get people to pay for it?

    If the research publishing industry invested as much in finding faster, cheaper, more equitable methods of dissemination as they do in protecting their current market and the status quo… .

    Maybe they prefer digging their own grave — which is what commercial journal publishers seem to be doing.

  10. I have Cystic Fibrosis, and my parents were understandably freaked out when I was diagnosed (a couple weeks after premature birth). They actually jumped right into the scholarly research and continue to do so, as does my wife, despite none of them having backgrounds in medicine or science. They’re almost as well-informed as my doctor and probably more current on new therapies and drug trials.

    But I’m sure even THAT’S not enough for these anti-OA cranks.

  11. Frosted Flake Says:

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    Impress strangers! Amaze your friends! Be the one everyone talks about (in group therapy)! Get promoted! Earn an extra $5 an hour! Tell others what’s what! The miracle product that transforms a mere mortal into an Oracle!

    I’d go on, but my keyboard is getting low on explanation points and the weekend is coming.

  12. William Miller Says:

    Is there any reason why scholarly articles should even be in the category of things that are copyrightable? The authors don’t get paid by the journals, and AIUI the academic community’s standards are enough to enforce citation/deter plagiarism…

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    William Miller asks: “Is there any reason why scholarly articles should even be in the category of things that are copyrightable?”

    I refer the learned gentleman to my previous answer on this subject.

  14. Rick Anderson Says:

    It would be more accurate to say that David Wojick is a _former_ author on the blog. He hasn’t been a Chef for quite some time now.

  15. William Miller Says:

    Ah, yeah – thanks.

    Actually I think the problem of over-application of copyright is even broader. I wish copyright was still something that required registration to go into effect…

  16. Chris Bourg Says:

    another favorite tactic is to label anyone who gets emotional about a topic as “irrational”. Because goddess forbid we get emotional about something that touches on issues of inequality, privilege, global human rights, etc.

  17. Josephine Says:

    Doesn’t it strike you that all these silly arguments saying that non-experts don’t need/shouldn’t have access to the literature sound like they’re being made by people who’re desperately defending their intellectual ‘turf’; as if their value as researchers is not so much the discovery of things, but more the custodianship thereof?

  18. […] people — patient advocates, unaffiliated scholars and the rest — gain access that they didn’t have […]

  19. […] The elitist and paternalistic idea that research papers are only of use to scholars at accredited universities is dead in the water. We know that all these non-researchers can and do make use of research, but does that mean they have a right to it? […]

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