Don't Think Open Access Is Important? It Might Have Prevented Much Of The Ebola Outbreak

from the paywalls-kill dept

For years now, we’ve been talking up the importance of open access to scientific research. Big journals like Elsevier have generally fought against this at every point, arguing that its profits are more important that some hippy dippy idea around sharing knowledge. Except, as we’ve been trying to explain, it’s that sharing of knowledge that leads to innovation and big health breakthroughs. Unfortunately, it’s often pretty difficult to come up with a concrete example of what didn’t happen because of locked up knowledge. And yet, it appears we have one new example that’s rather stunning: it looks like the worst of the Ebola outbreak from the past few months might have been avoided if key research had been open access, rather than locked up.

That, at least, appears to be the main takeaway of a recent NY Times article by the team in charge of drafting Liberia’s Ebola recovery plan. What they found was that the original detection of Ebola in Liberia was held up by incorrect “conventional wisdom” that Ebola was not present in that part of Africa:

The conventional wisdom among public health authorities is that the Ebola virus, which killed at least 10,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, was a new phenomenon, not seen in West Africa before 2013. (The one exception was an anomalous case in Ivory Coast in 1994, when a Swiss primatologist was infected after performing an autopsy on a chimpanzee.)

But, as the team discovered, that “conventional wisdom” was wrong. In fact, they found a bunch of studies, buried behind research paywalls, that revealed that there was significant evidence of antibodies to the Ebola virus in Liberia and in other nearby nations. There was one from 1982 that noted: “medical personnel in Liberian health centers should be aware of the possibility that they may come across active cases and thus be prepared to avoid nosocomial epidemics.” Then they found some more:

Three other studies published in 1986 documented Ebola antibody prevalence rates of 10.6, 13.4 and 14 percent, respectively, in northwestern Liberia, not far from its borders with Sierra Leone and Guinea. These articles, along with other forgotten reports from the 1980s on antibody prevalence in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, suggest the possibility of what some call ?sanctuary sites,? or persistent, if latent, Ebola infection in humans.

So why did the conventional wisdom continue to insist that Ebola wasn’t likely to be the issue when Liberians started getting sick and dying? Well, a big part of it may have been the fact that the research was locked up:

Part of the problem is that none of these articles were co-written by a Liberian scientist. The investigators collected their samples, returned home and published the startling results in European medical journals. Few Liberians were then trained in laboratory or epidemiological methods. Even today, downloading one of the papers would cost a physician here $45, about half a week?s salary.

Yes, it still would have required the knowledge to be passed along to Liberian doctors and health officials, and one can argue that that might not have happened. But it seems a lot more likely that the information would have been more easily accessible and the knowledge passed around if it didn’t cost half a week’s salary just to download decades old research warning of just such a threat. And, of course, the results were catastrophic. Even once people started dying, doctors had a tremendous amount of difficulty figuring out what the issue was:

…it was months before Ebola was identified as the culprit pathogen. That made it impossible for the region?s few doctors and nurses to deliver effective care.

Open access isn’t just some “free culture” refrain. It really matters and can save lives.

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Comments on “Don't Think Open Access Is Important? It Might Have Prevented Much Of The Ebola Outbreak”

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17 Comments
Torpedo says:

Gap: from "forgotten reports from the 1980s" to

“months before Ebola was identified”. Which of course Masnick, who’s merely re-writing the NYTimes, blithely leaps over by saying is due to a paywall, while blanking out that librarying those obscure reports of academically supposed possibility costs someone actual money: wouldn’t be online at all without some income.

Masnick begins with conclusion and argues backward.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Gap: from "forgotten reports from the 1980s" to

while blanking out that librarying those obscure reports of academically supposed possibility costs someone actual money: wouldn’t be online at all without some income.

Go and lok up how open access journals work, as for less cost to those scientists the papers could be online for free. The old print journals have become a massive tax on research,

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Gap: from "forgotten reports from the 1980s" to

while blanking out that librarying those obscure reports of academically supposed possibility costs someone actual money: wouldn’t be online at all without some income.

1. Do you know how cheap it is to put content online?
2. Do you realize that open access journals do this all the time?

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Gap: from "forgotten reports from the 1980s" to

Yeah, Masnick. What do you…a guy who’s run a blog/news content site and community for 16 years…know about the insanely high costs of hosting content online?

This is why we have no companies in the world like Photobucket, Gmail, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc. in the world. How would such a company ever be able to pay the going rate to host their content online.

sarc and duh!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Gap: from "forgotten reports from the 1980s" to

>> 1. Do you know how cheap it is to put content online?

And that’s why I stated librarying. Since you’ve never worked a day in your 1-percenter life, I’m sure you don’t know that it’s actual physical labor to scan material from the 1980s, to collate the pages into one file, title it, index it, and store the physical copy as backup. Then there’s the cost of the physical copy in the first place, the big expensive hardware and software required back whenever that was done, and to maintain all that through perhaps a half dozen systems since. — And these items are not hot sellers, it’s a RISK to do all that without being sure of ANY sales, so the cost of ALL being available shows up in the price of every item.

Being an Ivy League economist, you know NOTHING about labor or the real world.

So, smartypants, state how much that DID cost for the items in question.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Gap: from "forgotten reports from the 1980s" to

If it was not for the journals gaining and locking up the copyright, getting old papers on-line would not be very expensive, there is a huge army of students and other interested people to carry out the work as part of their research. Further, the search engines will do a good job of indexing them when they are on a publicly accessible website.

Zonker says:

Re: Re: Re: Gap: from "forgotten reports from the 1980s" to

Project Gutenburg.

You know, that free project the IP maximalists claim should be stopped at all costs because it infringes on their precious rights to lock up all cultural and literary works known to man behind licenses and paywalls for the benefit of nobody but themselves.

Klopper says:

First, Elsevier is not a “journal”. Second , this “article” is an absolute crock of excrement. There is no logical basis to it, it is biased beyond belief and it makes absolutely no contribution to finding the best solution to deliver science information to those that need it in a financially sustaniable manner.

Why do I bother to read and then comment? I wonder myself. I am in a spiral of OA idiocy.

nnk says:

Beyond Open Access - Additional Access Challenges

I’m a bit late in getting to this article, but also wanted to add besides the barrier of journal subscription fees to access useful articles, practitioners in limited resource settings may also face other access limitations, including: (1) Knowing that such resources are available and where they are housed; (2) being able to access them due to infrastructure challenges (e.g., unreliable Internet, electricity, etc.). In short, there are more challenges beyond publication fees that, I hope, will be taken into consideration as well.

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