Some science journals are messed up

I posted this at my personal blog but thought it might be of interest here since it demonstrates just how current online tools have changed the way scientific research is published, presented and read.

flying snake by Beige Alert
Why snakes don’t have legs:
[Via 2collab public bookmarks]

Tags: Hox gene, Homeobox gene, Limb
Authors: Cunliffe, Vincent
Source: Trends in Genetics; 15, 8, Page 306; 1 August 1999
Sharing: Public

I’m providing a detailed examination of an online journey I took this morning that demonstrates how the Internet has altered the landscape for publishing of articles in scientific journals. Online access certainly changes how we search for and how we read articles. It is also changing where we chose to publish.

So I see this interesting name for an article – Why snakes don’t have legs – in my newsfeed. I click on thru (why it is on 2collab I do not know?) and get this page. Great. ScienceDirect which usually charges for journal access. But this is an article from 1999. Surely it will be open by now?

Nope. They want $31.50 for a nine year old article. With no abstract or any other way to determine whether this article is worth the price. $31.50! First off, few articles in science today that are nine years old are worth $5, much less $31.50. Secondly, with no abstract how am I to even figure out if it is worth the price?

This greatly limits access to the article and encourages other routes for getting the information than reading it. Why would a scientist want to publish an article that no one will read? We want as many people as possible to see our wonderful work. This is not like literature or art where older is better.

Seems to me that this is a losing business model. I can see paying a premium for up-to-date work. I understand someone has to get paid and can easily pay a reasonable price. But $31.50?! For an article that is almost a decade old!? That makes no sense in an online world.

Very few articles in biology that are ten years old retain much value. Just a few years ago, I would have been stuck but now I have other tools.

I went to PubMed, the database of journal articles, and did a search for “snakes AND legs”. Got 48 articles. The critical one appears to be by Cohn and Tickle “Developmental basis of limblessness and axial patterning in snakes” in Nature from June 1999. Great. Now I have a subscription to Nature so this article is available to me but if you wanted to read it without a subscription it would cost $35! Wow! But at least now it has an abstract.

The evolution of snakes involved major changes in vertebrate body plan organization, but the developmental basis of those changes is unknown. The python axial skeleton consists of hundreds of similar vertebrae, forelimbs are absent and hindlimbs are severely reduced. Combined limb loss and trunk elongation is found in many vertebrate taxa1, suggesting that these changes may be linked by a common developmental mechanism. Here we show that Hox gene expression domains are expanded along the body axis in python embryos, and that this can account for both the absence of forelimbs and the expansion of thoracic identity in the axial skeleton. Hindlimb buds are initiated, but apical-ridge and polarizing-region signalling pathways that are normally required for limb development are not activated. Leg bud outgrowth and signalling by Sonic hedgehog in pythons can be rescued by application of fibroblast growth factor or by recombination with chick apical ridge. The failure to activate these signalling pathways during normal python development may also stem from changes in Hox gene expression that occurred early in snake evolution.

Sounds really interesting to me but still not sure it is worth $35. But right above that link from PubMed is another one – from Current Biology with pictures. “How the snake lost its legs”. It is a ScienceDirect link also but this one is available for free. And it has nice pictures while discussing the Cohn and Tickle article.

So partial success. Now I have a better idea of the article’s content. All the other links from PubMed dealing with snakes and THEIR legs, as opposed to snakes and the legs they bite, have costs to access, up to $39.

Except for this nifty one from the Journal of Experimental Biology – “Becoming airborne without legs: the kinematics of take-off in a flying snake, Chrysopelea paradisi” (The picture above is of a flying snake.) Open access and more recently published. Not exactly on topic but it comes with movies! These were just not possible to see without online access. And the movies are really cool and help explain what the author of the paper was describing. You can actually see the difference between a J-loop takeoff and other modes. Plus, flying snakes sound like something from a B-movie.

Back to the topic. I went to Google and searched “Cohn Tickle snake”. The top response is from a USA Today article about why snakes do not have legs. In the article there are links to Martin J. Cohn and Cheryll Tickle. Clicking the Cohn link takes me to his page at the University of Florida. Not a lot here but there is a link to his personal site.

Now we get the Cohn lab page. I could just email him and ask for a copy of the paper (a slightly updated approach to the old method of sending reprint requests by snail mail). But there is a link to Publications.

And here we find the PDF to the paper I was looking for. A quick runthrough reveals that it is a paper I will find interesting (I love Hox stuff). But I would not have paid over $30 for it.

I certainly believe that downloading a paper from an open archive presented by the author of a paper is an ethical way to obtain the paper (It is just the online version of the reprint request, remember). So, it took me less than 10 minutes to find a copy of the article online. (And it turns out that if I had looked at my Google results just a little more, I would have found a direct link to the publications page, saving myself some time.)

I think that, except for the most highly paid of us, 10 minutes time would be less than $10. This seems about right. A paper for $5 I would buy immediately while much over $10 and I will go searching. I may not succeed but I can usually find an email link and request a copy from the author.

Online archives by the authors are becoming more common and are a basic aspect of many Open Access initiatives. Paying a small premium for access to a current article is a reasonable price, especially if it is convenient. But any business plan that wants to charge a huge premium for decade old work needs serious rethinking.

So, for a few minutes of my time I got the article for free and also got to see some nice movies of snakes flying. Not a bad way to travel in an online world.

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