Editor's Choice

Amnesia strikes the memory business

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a1116 (Published 07 August 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1116
  1. Tony Delamothe, deputy editor, BMJ
  1. tdelamothe{at}bmj.com

    A poster advertising the British Library’s Business and Intellectual Property Centre shows a padlocked garden shed, on which the following words have been painted: “Inside is your invention. We’ll help you stop it becoming someone else’s.” Nothing could better symbolise the suburban smallmindedness underlying this initiative.

    I find it depressing because it represents an absolute repudiation of the role of libraries. Has the British Library forgotten that, along with archives and museums, libraries make up the memory business, preserving the resources of the past for present and future use? At the heart of this business lies an optimism, a generosity of spirit, an understanding of how progress happens.

    Readers of this journal don’t need reminding that science is a collaborative effort, with each important development heavily dependent on earlier ones. The references at the end of every article attest to this. As Isaac Newton put it, we don’t see further because of our particularly acute vision but because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

    As if to prove the point, Newton borrowed his metaphor from Bernard of Chartres, 500 years earlier, who had borrowed it from Greek mythology, according to Wikipedia, the free online reference library. And it’s not just science—examine the high points of literature, art, and music from any civilisation; their debts to earlier works are usually obvious.

    Which brings us to the antithesis of the padlocked garden shed: the open access movement. Made possible by the internet’s vastly reduced costs of dissemination, it promotes free access to original research articles.The costs of peer review and editing of these articles remain, but in the most popular model these are borne by authors’ funders or institutions, rather than by subscribers. (The BMJ, which has been making its original research articles freely available since 1998, currently funds these costs from surpluses made elsewhere; see editorial, doi: 10.1136/bmj.a1051.)

    Much has been made of the potential value to science of the free availability of research articles, but is there any proof? Embarrassingly, we’ve had to wait more than 10 years for the first rigorous evaluation of this intervention (doi: 10.1136/bmj.a568). It shows that physiology research articles and reviews that are freely available online are no more likely to be cited within a year of publication than those behind access controls. It’s still early days, and the results of longer term follow-up, as well as studies of other disciplines, including medicine, are promised.

    By the time more results are published, the web’s next big (medical) thing—Medpedia—will be upon us (www.medpedia.com). As the name suggests, Wikipedia is the model. Medpedia seeks to create “the most comprehensive and collaborative medical resource in the world,” serving “as a catalog, database, and learning tool about health, medicine and the body for doctors, scientists, policymakers, students and citizens that will improve medical literacy worldwide.” It already counts the universities of Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford among its supporters (http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2008/08/04/richard-smith-medpedia-inspired-by-the-counterculture-of-the-60s).

    Now might be a good time for the British Library to thumb through a few of the books on its shelves to remind itself what a library is for—and for it to go out of the padlock business.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1116

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