Posted by Chris M Saturday, October 20, 2007

A story on the need for open access

I am a supporter of open access, the idea that scientific/scholarly materials should not be locked-up and available only to those with the money to pay. However, as a student at a large university, I have never been directly affected by the closed access of our current system. Sure there were times I wanted an article in electronic form, but my school didn't have access so I had to go to the library and read it in a paper form. A few times I even had to use interlibrary loan to get a copy from another university. But I had never been refused the ability to read a scientific paper in any form.

Recently I was reading a paper and saw a reference that could be useful to me. It turned out to be a PhD dissertation at a university in a neighboring state. It was from 2001, so I suspected there was a good chance it was available in an electronic form. I went to WorldCat, searched, and found it was available in an electronic form. When I tried to download it, I was surprised when this came up.

At the request of the author, access to these materials is limited to the *** campus network only.

At request of the author? An author of a dissertation is limiting electronic access to their work to their university only? A journal restricting access is the status quo, but an author doing it.... I was not only surprised, but also dismayed. Fine I will just get the paper copy via interlibrary loan. I sent in my request and this morning I got this email in reply.

Dear ***,

A request you have placed:
Title: ***
Author: *** 2001

has been canceled by the Interlibrary Services staff for the following reason:

(NML) No More Locations.

We have exhausted all sources for your request. This doesn't circulate from *** and is not available for purchase from Dissertation Express.

If you have a question about this canceled item or any Interlibrary Services policies and procedures, please contact us at ***.

Not only was I being refused the electronic copy, but even the paper copy was restricted to their university. I was shocked. I didn't want to copy it or print it, I just wanted to read it. Why would somebody restrict access to scientific material? Why would a fellow student, a colleague, refuse me the right to read their work? I had never heard of this person before and I couldn't find where they currently were with a google search. I would like to ask them why they did it? Were they tricked into thinking that restriction on access is the same thing as protecting ones work from plagiarism. Did they consider the harm they would cause by doing this? How would they feel if this had been done to them?

A small issue to be sure. I doubt there was anything present in it that other studies haven't found, but I will never know. It is a reminder of the damage that can be done by restrictions on information.