Free research – one article at a time


Springer Nature, one of the world’s research publishing megacorps, recently released the latest instalment of their ‘Change the World’ campaign, making dozens of research articles freely available on the Net (at least until 31 July 2018). The articles are from scientific journals published by Springer Nature that the editors have selected for their potential “impact on society’s most pressing problems.”

This is quite a bargain, if you consider that many of these journal articles would normally cost you US$32 each (Aus$42) to buy. Or you could subscribe to the journals that publish these articles, at about US$1000 (Aus$1320) per year per journal. So I suggest that you take up this kind offer, and browse at least a few of these articles. Maybe the solution to one of the world’s big problems is waiting for your attention.

There are so many things to comment on in connection with this that I hardly know where to begin:

One: The weirdness of the research publishing system

Given the importance of research results to the march of human progress, you might imagine that the world had an efficient system for distributing this information, but this isn’t entirely the case. Research publishing has grown like topsy since the 1800s, with historical features of the system that are quite unlike anything in the world of general publishing.

People outside the research community may not be aware that researchers have never been paid by research journals for the articles they write. Researchers need to be published so that they can advance their research careers, so they have willingly offered their work for free, not just as writers, but also as peer reviewers.

Peer review is a process whereby the editor of the journal seeks the opinion of other subject-matter experts (peers) before deciding whether to publish a research paper. This expert review supplements (some would say leads) the editorial process, supposedly ensuring that the work published in research journals is of high quality. The system has obvious flaws and is frequently criticised,[1] but has not yet been replaced because nobody has come up with a better idea.

Managing peer review, editing and publishing has always been a slow and expensive business, despite the high level of volunteer labour involved, and the system has become so elaborate and careful that even the advent of the Net has not greatly sped up the process.

So far, the readers of research journals (mostly other researchers) have paid for journals because they need to know what’s going on in their field. In a new model that is becoming increasingly common, the research writer pays the journal for the publication costs, so that the article can be ‘open’ (free) on the Net for readers to find. There are tens of thousands of research journals, some well-known and readily available in libraries and databases, others quite obscure. It is close to impossible to find all the research that has been published on a topic, but obviously research that can be found and downloaded instantly after a simple Google search is more likely to be read than stuff behind a paywall. We currently live in a strange environment in which some research literature is free to readers, and some is expensive.[2] I don’t think anyone has done any good research yet on what impact this is having on the pace or direction of scientific enquiry.

Ever since the Net came into being, the inequity/inefficiency and historical weirdness of the research journal publishing system has become increasingly obvious. This is an issue I have followed for a while. I used to work professionally in this field, and I was involved back in the 1990s in one of the first attempts to put a medical journal online and experiment with an open peer review system.[3] Research journals have responded in various ways to the rise of the Net. Like most businesses that are faced with an utter paradigm shift, they have not responded with enthusiasm for the possibilities of the new. They have responded defensively, obstructively, and reluctantly in response to new players who are not tied to the old model. We now find that all the big publishers are offering a lot more content free to readers, because there is no other way to compete with open-access publication sites that run on a new model.

Two: The weirdness of the ‘Change the World’ campaign

The collection made freely available by Springer Nature is wonderfully odd. In the shortlist below, the article descriptions are by Springer Nature, not me.

Are these really the articles that are going to save the world? I admit that I picked out the ones that seemed furthest from usefulness. That’s rather unfair, and possibly just shows my own bias. So here are six more articles from the collection that seemed to me potentially world-saving.

Does this set seem to you obviously more likely to help us save our world? The fact is that when someone gets into the detail of solving the world’s problems, large issues rapidly break into complicated and messy specifics. In the privacy and security of our own living-rooms, we are mostly very good at imagining grand solutions to world problems. In reality, solutions are partial, and the evidence for what really works is made up of tiny pieces that come together only slowly. Argument and contradiction, doubt, dishonesty, bias, self-interest, fraud, ignorance all get to play their role. When you look at the research literature, when you see what the best-informed experts are working on, it is like looking at ‘the big picture’ one pixel at a time. You gain a fresh appreciation for how many little questions have to be correctly answered before the big questions can even be properly asked. You remember that there is a hell of a lot of information out there, and (unless you are a bit of a fool), you reduce your estimation of your own ability to know what is right, or even to know what is going on.

Three (final):

Not a single one of these ‘Change the world’ articles appears to be from Springer Nature’s flagship journal, Nature. Does this mean that Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, doesn’t publish anything that bears on ‘the world’s most pressing problems’? Or wasn’t Springer Nature prepared to give away the good stuff? Is the whole campaign really about public relations and sales promotion? After 31 July, most of these articles will be behind the paywall again.

I should mention that Springer Nature is not Robinson Crusoe in this social virtue signalling game. Elsevier (a bigger, badder monster of the research publishing jungle) recently did a similar thing by releasing for free access (until 30 September) a suite of articles on automated vehicles.

Regardless of the commercial motivation behind these gestures, it’s great to have free access to information. We might be better served in future by publicly-funded systems for reporting and disseminating research — or we might not. There are obvious advantages to society if research results are rapidly and freely available, but it is also important to ensure that the research publishing system is resistant to hype, fakery, forgery and misrepresentation. This implies the need for quality control of some kind, and that costs money.


When people like me start to talk about research publishing, we tend to forget about what passes for ethics and accuracy in the world of general publishing. Research publishing aims for a higher standard, even if it sometimes fails to meet it.

If you don’t know it already, have a look at The Conversation: coverage of current affairs written and peer-reviewed by academic experts for people in general (available in Australian, US, UK and other editions). It’s not a bad introduction to informed opinion on a wide variety of topics — a thinking person’s newspaper.

© 2018 Craig Bingham



[1]     You can read more about peer review in many locations, such as in: Hudson Jones A, McLellan F, editors. Ethical Issues in Biomedical Publication. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. For a shorter and readily accessible online discussion of peer review, I suggest: Spicer A, Roulet T. Hate the peer review process? Einstein did too. The Conversation Or see:  Smith R. Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals. J R Soc Med 2006; 99: 178–182. 

[2]      A Nature news feature ‘Open access: The true cost of science publishing’ gave a good outline of the state of play in 2013.
[3]      See, for the announcement of our first experiment: Bingham C, Coleman R. Enter the Web: an experiment in electronic research peer review. Med J Aust 1996; 164 (1): 8-9.  The results were later reported in  Bingham CM, Higgins G, Coleman R, Van Der Weyden MB. The Medical Journal of Australia internet peer-review study. Lancet 1998; 352(9126): 441-445. Traces of the 1990s MJA website, and much of the documentation of the peer review experiments have been archived by the National Library of Australia at . It all looks pretty geeky and lame now, but in those days, websites were hand-coded in a text editor, and Google hadn’t been invented yet.

Home page of the The Medical Journal of Australia as it was in 1998, two years after going online.

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