Publishing policies of scientific journals – especially, the closed-access journals – often leave me scratching my head. Seriously.

I am a member of ResearchGate; it is supposed to be a scientist-only social network, perhaps a “Facebook for Science” (as Eli Kintisch wrote in 2014 in Science‘s Career Magazine), in which scientists can upload and share their research papers, track citations, follow the work of – and even request papers from – colleagues and fellow scientists across the world. Every once in a while I receive requests for some of my papers, usually from institutions in South America, India, and so on. ResearchGate allows me to upload my papers to their system for easy sharing with researchers who ask for them. It’s a formalized and organized way of sharing research articles evocative of the #IcanHazPDF hashtag on Twitter.

Except that I can’t. That is, unless my research is published in an Open Access journal (such as the PLOS journals), or via the Open Access systems of various Closed Access journals (which requires the payment of a hefty fee), my ability to upload my research papers to ResearchGate is mostly restricted by the Closed Access publishers’ interpretation of the copyright law – because they hold the copyright to the published work. I say, “mostly”, because there are some workarounds. Allow me to explain.

  • Self-archiving by an author ordinarily means that the author makes the article available on their own personal website and/or that of their employers and free public servers (which ResearchGate qualifies as); however, this applies to the article ONLY at its “original version”, that is, the Word-formatted document – typed double-spaced, all figures placed at the end, figure legends placed separately – prior to submission for peer review. Of course, this makes zero sense, because in scientific disciplines, an article not peer-reviewed and published is generally not worth the paper it is written on.
  • Once the article is peer reviewed and accepted for publication, the question of permissions to self-archive comes into play. These permissions vary between Closed Access publishers and journals, but almost all of them put restrictions on uploading certain versions of a publication, subject to individual publisher copyright policies and requirements.
  • For example, for an accepted paper, Oxford University Press insists that the author must display a statement in the self-archived original version, stating that it has been accepted for publication. But that’s not all. The author is explicitly prohibited from replacing that original version with the accepted manuscript (Word-formatted document) or version of record (the Word-formatted final version available at the publisher website, as well as the copy-edited, typeset PDF version thereof).
  • OUP does make one concession: Authors are allowed to generate a PDF of their accepted manuscript and upload it to an institutional and/or centrally organized repository, with the proviso that the public availability is delayed until an arbitrary amount of time has elapsed, which for OUP is “12 months after first online publication in the journal”. For researcher engaged in cutting-edge scientific work, a year’s delay is almost the same as infinity. Similar time delays are instituted by other publishers, such as Wiley.

This, of course, means that the peer-reviewed version of the research article is effectively shut out from free access servers, such as ResearchGate (and other similar repositories, such as And even when considering said concession above, the situation is far from ideal. Many researchers I know (including moi) undertake a symbolic housecleaning after each paper is published – removing older versions of the manuscript draft, figures, tables, and so on, that are invariably generated during the preparation of the manuscript. Once the typeset, formatted PDF is made available from the journal website, many of us get rid of the Word-formatted versions altogether from our computers. Big mistake, it turns out – because then there remains nothing to upload to ResearchGate legally. This morning, I received a request for a 2003 publication of mine from a university in Brazil via ResearchGate, and I couldn’t upload the final-formatted manuscript to help a fellow scientist – because I no longer have it.

And even if I had the Word-formatted version, it’s a pain. Those of us who have served as peer reviewers for journals would surely agree with me. The double-spaced document with figures at the end was originally intended to aid review after being printed out on paper; the reviewer could read the text, while looking at the figures and tables printed on different sheets. If you are like me, and prefer reading and reviewing online (and saving a few trees in the process), the ugly spacing is an eyesore, and the need to frequently jump to other parts of the document to refer to figures et cetera is huge hindrance to the understanding and assimilation of the material – which is necessary for the review. Can you imagine inflicting the same pain on a fellow researcher who wants to read up on your hard work?

In the final synthesis, then, these restrictive publishing policies – possibly a measure instituted by the publishers to assert control over scientific literature – whom do these help, really? Certainly not the scientific community or the cause of science communication.

In this space, I have earlier written about how, in 2011, I tried to access a comment article, published in 1996, in the New England Journal of Medicine, and found that I was required to pay $15 to access that article. It didn’t (and still doesn’t) make any sense to me. The heartening news at that time was the institution of NIH’s Public Access Policy, which “requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to PubMed Central immediately upon acceptance for publication.” The NIH was in a position to enforce that policy, and as a result, by mid-2013, began to see an uptick in the publicly, freely accessible “Open Access” manuscripts submitted to its PubMed Central (PMC) server.

I cannot emphasize enough how fabulous and critically important the PMC system is. It has helped me innumerable times while doing literature searches for my research work and blogging. At my institution, I am immensely fortunate to have online and offline access to a great many biomedical journals, but for others – including researchers whose universities are unable or unwilling to pay exorbitant amounts for journal access; independent researchers, journalists, science communicators; interested members of the public, and so forth – PMC access has been nothing short of a boon. And with the introduction of NCBI’s PubReader™ – a cross-browser, web-based, cross-platform, and extremely reader-friendly presentation of journal articles – accessing and reading PMC articles has been a pleasure. PMC asks for the Word-formatted document (and not the PDF) to be submitted, because its software can reflow the text and figures to the PubReader format, accessible equally well on computer screens as well as tablets and smartphones.

In addition, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) has an ongoing project, in which old journal articles, available only in print, are scanned in and digitized for archival. While this facility is available only for journals that participate in this project, NLM has the right to make the articles freely available via PMC in the portable document format (PDF). It is not difficult to imagine the immeasurable importance of this resource to the entire biomedical research community across the world. Watch the following video from the Right to Research Coalition, in which Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH director, discusses how Open Access enabled Jack Andraka, the 16-year old inventor of a cancer diagnostic.

The NIH Open Access policy complies with the copyright law. For both pre-publication peer-reviewed manuscripts and digitized material, the publisher (or the individual author(s), if applicable) hold(s) the copyright.

Sadly, wherever the copyright remains with the publisher, the scientific material – the journal article – remains subject to weird publication policies enforced by the Closed Access publishing houses, to the detriment of science communication.