The Research Monopoly

There is an interesting feature of life in academia. Research is often funded with public funds via grants from the NIH, NSF, and other sources. The results often make headlines in the popular press. The press cites a scholarly journal in which the full results are published, and offers a take (often neglecting numerous provisos and conditions in the original paper). When/if you try to go and track down the actual paper, you are blocked by a paywall from being able to access the article. Yep, you must pay a fee (often a costly one) to access the paper about the study your tax dollars helped to pay for. This wouldn’t be too big a deal if it was cheap, or if libraries available to you could afford to stock the particular journal you wanted. This is often not the case. Here is a taste of an article decrying the greed that seems to be at work here:

Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.

Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.

Read the rest here, but I had an interesting experience with this just in the last couple of days. My friend Josh Wood posted a link to this intriguing article about a recent European study that they claim proved that global warming is caused by cosmic rays that enter the earth’s atmosphere and cause cloud formation. The rays are more prevalent during times, like now, that the sun’s magnetic field is not as strong. The claim is that the clouds then trap heat and are causing the rise in temperatures that we have observed. The claim of the article is that the news has been repressed because of the liberal/environmentalist wing who profit from blaming human activity for global warming.

This all sounds relatively believable, I suppose, but as a statistician, I naturally wondered what the basis for this was. What did the study actually say? Were the conditions perfectly like earth, or just “sorta close”? I never like to believe something based on one writers take of a paper, and in this case it seemed to be one writer’s take on other writers’ takes of the original paper (the original paper was not directly cited or linked).  The paper appeared in the journal Nature at some point recently, so I started digging around and trying to find it. I finally found this “news release” type article that describes the paper and its findings. They are much more muted in their assessment of what has been accomplished in this study. They didn’t use cosmic rays, but created something that should act like them. No clouds were created, but things did change, and something that could be the precursor of clouds was created. Could that lead to the development of clouds? Even the author (physicist Jasper Kirby) seems to hedge on this.

Early results seem to indicate that cosmic rays do cause a change. The high-energy protons seemed to enhance the production of nanometre-sized particles from the gaseous atmosphere by more than a factor of ten. But, Kirkby adds, those particles are far too small to serve as seeds for clouds. “At the moment, it actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step,” he says.

The blurb says that both sides claim it supports their claims, and concludes:

Kirkby hopes that the experiment will eventually answer the cosmic-ray question. In the coming years, he says, his group is planning experiments with larger particles in the chamber, and they hope eventually to generate artificial clouds for study. “There is a series of measurements that we will have to do that will take at least five years,” he says. “But at the end of it, we want to settle it one way or the other.”

Hm, that seems underwhelming. Where are the grandiose claims of the first writer coming from? He told me the sun causes global warming, not humans. Maybe there is something in the original article that is undersold for some reason in the main news blurb about it. (Read the whole piece, it isn’t long, but is remarkably vague about what we really can tell from the study.)

At the end of the news piece, they provide a link to the article! Finally, I would get to the bottom of this. You can check out what I found here. You get a dense and somewhat technical description of the process in the abstract. You can also click to view some pretty graphs that have cryptic captions. Then a paywall. Want to read the article? Fine, as long as you don’t mind paying $32. Yep. The paper may or may not say much of anything useful, but it will cost you $32 to find out. For one article. This doesn’t even buy you access to the whole issue of this journal, just one article.

Yep, this is the way academic journals work. Libraries and individuals cannot afford collections. Most of my journals that come with professional memberships are online. It costs me extra each year to get the “included” editions of my journals. And the statistics journals I get are the cheap ones, comparatively. Where will this end?


Note: The NIH does mandate that those receiving grants from them must make at least the data publicly available on its website within a certain period of the end of the grant. I’m not sure if resulting journal articles must also be posted, but if not, interested readers would have to know how to recreate the entire statistical analysis to verify conclusions.

3 comments on “The Research Monopoly

  1. […] online for free! Congrats, NASA. (For my whining about the usual way these reports are hidden, see this post.) Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Google reveals […]

  2. […] Studies hidden behind a “paywall”. […]

  3. […] commented before on the (shameful) prices of scholarly journals, especially when the research itself is taxpayer […]

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