Scaling up paywalled academic article sharing by legal means

Announcing R4R to connect authors to peers

It was a Sunday afternoon at the summer house in the Finnish countryside. Sitting by the lake to keep cool in blazing heat I was lazily browsing Twitter. That’s when I bumped into this widely shared tweet by Holly Witteman: “If you read a paper, 100% goes to the publisher. If you just email us to ask for our papers, we are allowed to send them to you for free, and will be genuinely delighted to do so.”

Those who are not familiar with how the publishing industry works might wonder why could such an archaic means for sharing knowledge be in anyone’s interest. Research papers have been in digital format for a while and the World Wide Web, which was originally invented by Tim Berners Lee precisely for sharing articles between researchers, has been there for 20 years. Surely there are more effective ways for sharing than email.

Sadly, in the majority of cases, there isn’t. Problem is that, based on estimates, approximately 70–75% of the research content is behind walls that the publishing industry opens up only for those with deep enough pockets to pay for expensive license fees. Just to put the word “deep” into the right context, university libraries in the UK pay an average of €4.4M to access paywalled content on a yearly basis. It’s an upward trending price tag that generates staggering profit margins for the industry players.

Legally the publishing houses have every right to run their current business model. Morally it’s hardly justifiable. Society is forced to pay several times for the research outputs — first by funding most research, then by paying the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research (the peer review process), and finally by buying most of the published product so that the researchers, who created the product in the first place, can read the papers.

While the Open Science movement have made great strides by demanding more openness (kudos to Germany and Sweden from holding out on subscriptions to journals from Elsevier) and making the existing open access articles easy to find and use, we still have way too many valuable resources on the wrong side of the wall.

Which brings me back to Holly’s gentle reminder: Sharing a paper you authored via email with your peers is generally allowed as per the terms and conditions of the publishers. While being far from the most efficient way to share knowledge, email still remains as the knowledge seekers’ last resort when the expensive paywalled content is beyond their reach.

Accessing this resort is not a norm, yet. At Iris.ai we’re working to change that by launching R4R. By facilitating requesting and sharing of papers via email, the initiative aims to make the process of sharing as speedy and frictionless as possible, targeting particularly those resources that are not yet accessible via open repositories. Technically R4R is a simple tool designed for unlocking access to scholarly articles when the existing open access services fall short.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Imagine you just found an interesting paper using Google Scholar, or other search engines. It’s relevant, but sadly behind a paywall and not accessible via open access applications.
  2. Having installed the R4R browser extension, a tab on your screen will let you know if sending the email to the author automatically is available. A single click on the tab sends an email to the author, which you can manually edit if you wish.
  3. R4R automatically drafts a response to the person requesting the paper and adds the relevant scholarly article as an attachment. If the author rather drafts the email herself, by all means she can do that.
  4. The author reviews the email and makes the final decision on sharing the paper to the person who asks for it.

Knowing that some researchers have been disappointed in the past after sending requests to the authors and never hearing back from them, we start by pulling together a list of researchers who are delighted to share their papers when they can. Initially, the browser plug-in will only allow sending emails to the authors on the list.

Over the next few months, we’ll be heads down working on getting the tools ready. Meanwhile, we’d love if you could add your name on this list, if you’ve authored articles, and when the legal terms allow, are more than happy to share them with your research colleagues as per request. If you haven’t published papers yet and would like to be among the first ones to be notified when the software is ready, sign up for the waitlist via this link.

R4R is a project that we at Iris.ai feel urged to do to make legal article sharing via email a routine in the research community for as long as that is needed. Usage of the software will not cost anything, and we gladly collaborate with other teams in the space that have and will continue to make great strides towards open science. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

We have every reason to believe that we’re close to a tipping point where funded research will be fully open access. And not just the papers, but the data behind it as well. Until we’ve achieved that milestone, we genuinely hope that through R4R, researchers around the world will find it easy to follow Holly’s example and gladly share their discoveries with those who need them.