When publishing is like shopping for cookies

Staying on top of the research literature is really hard. It’s even harder because most of the time, we don’t actually know what’s in a published paper until we’ve spent the time paying to access it, and reading it.

That’s right – you have to pay for access to articles to even figure out if they’re relevant for you! How ridiculous is that?

Imagine if we had the same sort of system for other things.

Say you want to buy a cookie. But all you see is a bag on it saying ‘Cookie’, and it has a price tag of $37.95 on it. You don’t even know what sort of cookie it is or if you’re going to like it. You get to see the ingredients list, but that doesn’t tell you anything about how the cookie is going to taste, or whether you’re going to enjoy it.

Your friend tells you the cookie tastes good, so you buy it. But you don’t like it, and it turns out you prefer another brand of cookie instead. But you had to spend $37.95 just to realise that you don’t want this cookie. There’s no way you’re getting a refund too – you’ve already taken a bite out of it. And what if you’re really hungry, and in the mood for say 10 cookies? You’re going to spend a lot of money on potential cookies until you find the one you want.

Meanwhile, the cookie has magically regenerated, and sits there waiting for another hungry customer to come by and see if they want a bite. That’s another $37.95 please.

It’s a publishing metaphor. Except imagine if a pack of cookies cost $37.95 to try instead of $1. Good job it’s only knowledge we’re talking about instead then.

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