An editorial entitled ‘Improving outcomes for New Zealand men with prostate cancer’ features in the 14 February 2014 edition of the New Zealand Medical Journal. This will be a topic of interest to many men. But due to this journal’s publishing policies, the public cannot read the article until after six months.

In another area of research important to New Zealand, in 2013 an article ‘Evaluating Ecological Restoration Success: A Review of the Literature’ was published in the journal Restoration Ecology. But unless one is a member of the United States Society for Ecological Restoration, or has a library account that allows access to such journals, ‘citizen scientists’ cannot read it. New Zealand has large numbers of such ‘citizen scientists’ who freely give their time to run eco-restoration groups. It is vital for them to know whether their work is making a difference.

On many subjects, members of the public will want to get behind the headlines and the press releases to read the original, often taxpayer funded, research. But, unless one works for a university, a research institution or perhaps a government department, instant low cost access to such articles can be difficult.

Buying a particular article may not be a financial barrier for everyone. Sometimes the cost per article is relatively low. But until payment is made, it is difficult to determine whether the paper is useful. Most researchers have the experience of trolling many articles before finding useful ones.

Alternatively some paper copies of journals are held in New Zealand research libraries. But generally libraries are switching to electronic access and no longer hold printed versions. Or like the New Zealand Medical Journal, one may have to wait for a set period before an article becomes freely available.

So why do we have an emerging digital divide in society where one group has easy and instant access to new research often funded out of the public purse yet others face significant costs, delays or barriers to accessing knowledge?

Societies are increasingly complex. People are becoming better educated, with a dramatic rise in tertiary enrolments of young people and an increasing number of well educated people moving into retirement. Due to demographic changes the retired or semi-retired ageing population is also swelling in size. While there has been a recent emphasis on their participation in paid work, many older people also want to contribute to society in a voluntary capacity.

To participate in democratic processes, such as presenting submissions to select committees or local council planning hearings, it is increasingly necessary to undertake research on particular topics. For example, with predicted sea level rise, is it sensible to build or maintain sea walls? What does the international research say about ‘fracking’? Should water be fluoridated? To make the best possible decisions all parties should have access to the latest research.

In the past, one might have expected society’s ‘critics and consciences’ to be located in universities. Now many of these voices, including some who have retired, are outside these institutions.

One solution is for researchers to publish only in ‘open access’ journals that are freely available to everyone. Alternatively, all academic journals could move towards becoming open access. In some countries, strong incentives exist for research to be made widely available. In the United States, the health funder National Institutes of Health requires scientists to submit peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that result from their funding to the open access archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication. Currently, this is not a requirement of New Zealand’s equivalent agency, the Health Research Council.

There is on-going debate about the costs and benefits of shifting entirely to open access journals, but it seems unlikely this shift will occur in the short to medium term. So journal access generally requires a connection to a library with a subscription.

The National Library of New Zealand subscribes to many journal and article databases. But while some search results may be viewed from outside the National Library, most of their subscriptions require the researcher to examine the item’s full text in one of the library’s reading rooms. This system clearly favours Wellington and Auckland based residents over those in other parts of New Zealand.

Free online access to The Cochrane Library is provided to all New Zealanders by the Ministry of Health. This is very useful in terms of access to a range of health research but does not include access to many health related journals.

More radical solutions are required. A number of years ago, Statistics New Zealand stopped charging for much data recognising that the wider economic value of making the data free was significantly more than the revenue obtained from selling it. A national site license option may be attractive to information suppliers—i.e. one cheque per annum and no administration hassles. Clearly there is a cost in providing access to journals. Even with open access journals someone has to pay for the editing, reviewing and production. But with all the innovations occurring in publishing and electronic information sharing ways to reduce substantially the cost of journal access could surely be found.

A large community of university and government researchers already enjoys ready access to on-line resources such as journals, presumably on terms that satisfy providers’ commercial needs. Arrangements to extend such access to those in the wider community should be considered.

Paul Callister is a New Zealand economist who has conducted research on local, national, and cross-national issues for a wide range of public, private sector and voluntary organisations. This post was originally published at Callister & Associates.

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