How to smash an interstellar paywall

Last month, hundreds of news outlets covered an amazing story: seven earth-sized planets were discovered, orbiting a nearby star. It was awesome. Less awesome: the paper with the details, published in the journal Nature, was paywalled. People couldn’t read it.

That’s messed up. We’re working to fix it, by releasing our new free Chrome extension Unpaywall. Using Unpaywall, you can get access to the article, and millions like it, instantly and legally. Let’s learn more.

First, is this really a problem? Surely google can find the article. I mean, there might be aliens out there. We need to read about this. Here we go, let’s Google for “seven terrestrial planets nature article.” Great, there it is, first result. Click, and…

What, thirty-two bucks to read!? Well that’s that, I quit.

Or maybe there are some ways around the paywall? Well, you can know someone with access. My pal Cindy Wu helped out her journal club out this way, offering on Twitter to email them a copy of the paper. But you have to follow Cindy on Twitter for that to work.

Or you could know the right places to look for access. Astronomers generally post their papers are on a free web server called the ArXiv, and sure enough if you search there, you’ll find the Nature paper.  But you have to know about ArXiv for that to work. And check out those Google search results again: ArXiv doesn’t appear.

Most people don’t know Cindy, or ArXiv. And no one’s paying $32 for an article. So the knowledge in this paper, and thousands of papers like it, is locked away from the taxpayers who funded it. Research becomes the private reserve of those privileged few with the money, experience, or connections to get access.

We’re helping to change that.

Install our new, free Unpaywall Chrome extension and browse to the Nature article. See that little green tab on the right of the page? It means Unpaywall found a free version, the one the authors posted to ArXiv. Click the tab. Read for free. No special knowledge or searches or emails or anything else needed. 

Today you’ll find Unpaywall’s green tab on ten million articles, and that number is growing quickly thanks to the hard work of the open-access movement. Governments in the US, UK, Europe, and beyond are increasingly requiring that taxpayer-funded research be publically available, and as they do Unpaywall will get more and more effective.

Eventually, the paywalls will all fall. Till then, we’ll be standing next to ‘em, handing out ladders. Together with millions of principled scientists, libraries, techies, and activists, we’re helping make scholarly knowledge free to all humans. And whoever else is out there 😀 👽.

Introducing Unpaywall: unlock paywalled research papers as you browse

Last Friday night we tweeted about a new Chrome extension we’ve been working on. It’s called Unpaywall, and it links you to free fulltext as you browse research articles. Hit a paywall? No problem: click the green tab and read it free.

Unpaywall is powered by an index of over ten million legally-uploaded, open-access resources, and it delivers. For example, in a set of 11k recent cancer research articles covered in mainstream media, Unpaywall users were able to read around half of them for free–even without any subscription, and even though most of them were paywalled.

So far the response to Friday’s tweet has been amazing — 500 retweets, and in just a few days we’ve gotten more than 1500 installations: Hockey stick growth!  🙂

 

And we’ve also gotten rave reviews, like this one from Sarah:

Why the excitement?  Finding free, legal, open access is now super easy — it happens automatically.  With the Unpaywall extension, links to open access are automatically available as you browse.

This is useful for researchers like Ethan.  It’s also really helpful for people outside academia, who don’t enjoy the expensive subscription benefits of institutional libraries. This is especially true for nonprofits:

…. and folks working to communicate scholarship to a broader audience:

Go give it a try and see what you think! The official release is April 4th, but you can already  install it, learn more, and follow @unpaywall. We’d love your help to spread the word about Unpaywall to your friends and colleagues. Together we can accelerate toward to a future of full #openaccess for all!

 

 

 

Let’s value the software that powers science: Introducing Depsy

Today we’re proud to officially launch Depsy, an open-source webapp that tracks research software impact.

We made Depsy to solve a problem:  in modern science, research software is often as important as traditional research papers–but it’s not treated that way when it comes to funding and tenure. There, the traditional publish-or-perish, show-me-the-Impact-Factor system still rules.

We need to fix that. We need to provide meaningful incentives for the scientist-developers who make important research software, so that we can keep doing important, software-driven science.

Lots of things have to happen to support this change. Depsy is a shot at making one of those things happen: a system that tracks the impact of software in software-native ways.

That means not just counting up citations to a hastily-written paper about the software, but actual mentions of the software itself in the literature. It means looking how software gets reused by other software, even when it’s not cited at all. And it means understanding the full complexity of software authorship, where one project can involve hundreds of contributors in multiple roles that don’t map to traditional paper authorship.

Ok, this sounds great, but how about some specifics. Check out these examples:

  • GDAL is a geoscience library. Depsy finds this cool NASA-funded ice map paper that mentions GDAL without formally citing it. Also check out key author Even Rouault: the project commit history demonstrates he deserves 27% credit for GDAL, even though he’s overlooked in more traditional credit systems.
  • lubridate improves date handling for R. It’s not highly-cited, but we can see it’s making a different kind of impact: it’s got a very high dependency PageRank, because it’s reused by over 1000 different R projects on GitHub and CRAN.
  • BradleyTerry2 implements a probability technique in R. It’s only directly reused by 8 projects—but Depsy shows that one of those projects is itself highly reused, leading to huge indirect impacts. This indirect reuse gives BradleyTerry2 a very high dependency PageRank score, even though its direct reuse is small, and that makes for a better reflection of real-world impact.
  • Michael Droettboom makes small (under 20%) contributions to other people’s research software, contributions easy to overlook. But the contributions are meaningful, and they’re to high-impact projects, so in Depsy’s transitive credit system he ends up as a highly-ranked contributor. Depsy can help unsung heroes like Micheal get rewarded.
     

Depsy doesn’t do a perfect job of finding citations, tracking dependencies, or crediting authors (see our in-progress paper for more details on limitations). It’s not supposed to. Instead, Depsy is a proof-of-concept to show that we can do them at all. The data and tools are there. We can measure and reward software impact, like we measure and reward the impact of papers.

Embed impact badges in your GitHub README

Given that, it’s not a question of if research software becomes a first-class scientific product, but when and how. Let’s start having the conversations about when and how (here are some great places for that). Let’s improve Depsy, let’s build systems better than Depsy, and let’s (most importantly) start building the cultural and political structures that can use these systems.

For lots more details about Depsy, check out the paper we’re writing (and contribute!), and of course Depsy itself. We’re still in the early stages of this project, and we’re excited to hear your feedback: hit us up on twitter, in the comments below, or in the Hacker News thread about this post.

Depsy is made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
edit nov 15 2015: change embed image to match new badge