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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 9th April 2012

I thought I would write about what I’m not writing about. By that I mean I’m returning to a subject I wrote about last November (30th); paywalls. The reason for doing so is related to an article in the Guardian that I’ll come to later.

Over the past few days, a number of items have caught my attention but I’ve been frustrated by only being able to access the barest details because the full information is only available to subscribers or those willing to pay anything up to £30 to get sight of it.

I should have liked to write about ‘Aspirin overdose: Various toxicities in a pregnant woman, and in her neonate following in utero exposure: 2 case reports’ because the story of the development of aspirin from the natural painkiller found in Salix alba, white willow, brings in many of the aspects of the ‘herbal’ versus ‘proper’ medicine debate. (I should say that I’ll provide links to the various stories but, for me, they don’t provide a lot of information. If you have access via a university or something they will work for you.)

Though peripheral to my main interest, I’d quite like to see the detail on this piece about treating skin cancer.

My concern about poisoning caused by Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort, means I’d like to read ‘Herbal hepatotoxicity: a hidden epidemic’ True I can read the whole of ‘A systematic review of randomised clinical trials of individualised herbal medicine in any indication’ but that was published in 2007 so won’t have anything discovered on the subject in the past five years.

Though ‘Herbal remedies: science or tradition? The ethical dilemma’ is only a ‘letter to the editor’ I’d like to see it but I’m certainly not able to spend €34.95 to do so. And the same goes for ‘The lack of knowledge about herbal remedies: how could it be improved?’

Then there are two articles, one on toxicity in a weight loss product and the other about using colchicine, from Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus, to treat pericarditis where the publisher has made the first page available as a facsimile but the quality of the reproduction makes them almost impossible to read.

I’ve picked all recent publications but there are ways in which the problem is greater with older work. At least, if a new paper is of fairly general interest, I may be able to read what has been written by people who have read the paper and get a second-hand sense of what it says. When I’m looking at older material, it is much more difficult to find any commentary on it.

Now, however, the Guardian reports that the Wellcome Trust has backed the ‘campaign to break stranglehold of academic journals and allow all research papers to be shared free online’. The story says Wellcome is soon to launch an online journal that will be freely available and may take a stronger line on open access to results when deciding on funding for research.

The Guardian calls the Wellcome Trust ‘the largest non-governmental funder of medical research after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’ so such a move could have significant effects.

As I wrote in November, researchers have to have the funds they need to carry out research, which is one of the arguments for paid publication. I don’t know the full business model for an academic journal so I can’t say how much of the income from journals finds it way directly to researchers.

What I do know is that, like any business, the first priority is profit and, after working for one of the largest providers of information as these companies like to describe themselves for a year, I also know that the senior managers I had dealings with had little concern for customer service. I’d be surprised to find that any significant share of the income from publication of paywalled journals is returning to the academicians who conduct the research.

The Guardian’s article says that British universities are believed to be paying around £200m a year for subscriptions, though individual prices are not available because the publishers prevent these being discussed. What I haven’t seen is any estimate of the total income for researchers from publications. I’d be surprised if the £200m wouldn’t more than replace that if a way could be found to pass library savings onto researchers.

The response from the publishers seems to me to be similar to the responses from tobacco and alcohol companies; how do we appear to be co-operative without harming our profits? Thus, there is talk about the threat to proper peer review from free publication, because such review is costly. Reviewers themselves, however, are unpaid and with documents now distributed electronically rather than in hard copy these costs are not what the publishers would like you to believe.

Then there’s the argument about ‘customer choice’. Publishers would like us to believe that cash-strapped university libraries want to pay up to €20,000 a year for one journal because it looks so nice on the shelves.

There is a compromise floating around, which is that all articles would become free after six months. That is a ridiculous notion because it would retard science as people would wait for free access rather than keep up their high cost subscriptions.

There is one other advantage of free access, it seems to me. With around 1.5 million new items being published each year, it is impossible for any individual to be sure of seeing everything related to their discipline. The more people who can read the these papers, the greater the value of the findings in them will be.

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