Everybody's Libraries

October 15, 2010

Journal liberation: A community enterprise

Filed under: copyright,discovery,open access,publishing,serials,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 2:53 pm

The fourth annual Open Access Week begins on Monday.  If you follow the official OAW website, you’ll be seeing a lot of information about the benefits of free access to scholarly research.  The amount of open-access material grows every day, but much of the research published in scholarly journals through the years is still practically inaccessible to many, due to prohibitive cost or lack of an online copy.

That situation can change, though, sometimes more dramatically than one might expect.  A post I made back in June, “Journal liberation: A Primer”, discussed the various ways in which people can open access to journal content, past and present,  one article or scanned volume at a time.  But things can go much faster if you have a large group of interested liberators working towards a common goal.

Consider the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), for example.  It’s one of the most prominent journals in the world, valued both for its reports on groundbreaking new research, and for its documentation, in its back issues, of nearly 200 years of American medical history.  Many other journals with lesser value still cannot be read without paying for a subscription, or visiting a research library that has paid for a subscription.  But you can find and read most of NEJM’s content freely online, both past and present. Several groups of people made this possible.  Here are some of them.

The journal’s publisher has for a number of years provided open access to all research articles more than 6 months old, from 1993 onward.  (Articles less than 6 months old are also freely available to readers in certain developing countries, and in some cases for readers elsewhere as well.)  A registration requirement was dropped in 2007.

Funders of medical research, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have encouraged publishers in the medical field to maintain or adopt such open access policies, by requiring their grantees (who publish many of the articles in journals like the NEJM) to make their articles openly accessible within months of publication.  Some of these funders also maintain their own repositories of scholarly articles that have appeared in NEJM and similar journals.

Google Books has digitized most of the back run of the NEJM and its predecessor publications as part of its Google Books database.  Many of these volumes are freely accessible to the public.  This is not the only digital archive of this material; there’s also one on NEJM’s own website, but access there requires either a subscription or a $15 payment per article.   Google’s scans, unlike the ones on the NEJM website, include the advertisements that appeared along with the articles.  These ads document important aspects of medical history that are not as easily seen in the articles, on subjects ranging from the evolving requirements and curricula of 19th-century medical schools to the early 20th-century marketing of heroin for patients as young as 3 years old.

It’s one thing to scan journal volumes, though; it’s another to make them easy to find and use– which is why NEJM’s for-pay archive got a fair bit of publicity when it was released this summer, while Google’s scans went largely unnoticed.  As I’ve noted before, it can be extremely difficult to find all of the volumes of a multi-volume work in Google Books; and it’s even more difficult in the case of NEJM, since issues prior to 1928 were published under different journal titles.  Fortunately, many of the libraries that supplied volumes for Google’s scanners have also organized links to the scanned volumes, making it easier to track down specific volumes.  The Harvard Libraries, for instance, have a chronologically ordered list of links to most of the volumes of the journal from 1828 to 1922, a period when it was known as the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

For many digitized journals, open access stops after 1922, because of uncertainty about copyright.  However, most scholarly journals have public domain content after that date, so it’s possible to go further if you research journal copyrights.  Thanks to records provided by the US Copyright Office and volunteers for The Online Books Page, we can determine that issues and articles of the NEJM prior to the 1950s did not have their copyrights renewed.  With this knowledge, Hathi Trust has been able and willing to open access to many volumes from the 1930s and 1940s.

We at The Online Books Page can then pull together these volumes and articles from various sources, and create a cover page that allows people to easily get to free versions of this journal and its predecessors all the way back to 1812.

Most of the content of the New England Journal of Medicine has thus been liberated by the combined efforts of several different organizations (and other interested people).  There’s still more than can be done, both in liberating more of the content, and in making the free content easier to find and use.  But I hope this shows how widespread  journal liberation efforts of various sorts can free lots of scholarly research.  And I hope we’ll hear about many more  free scholarly articles and journals being made available, or more accessible and usable, during Open Access Week and beyond.

I’ve also had another liberation project in the works for a while, related to books, but I’ll wait until Open Access Week itself to announce it.  Watch this blog for more open access-related news, after the weekend.

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