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Why Abstracts Aren’t Enough

I just wanted to post this anecdote from a concise PLOS editorial on OA publishing:

Arthur Amman, President of Global Strategies for HIV Prevention tells this story: “I recently met a physician from southern Africa, engaged in perinatal HIV prevention, whose primary access to information was abstracts posted on the Internet. Based on a single abstract, they had altered their perinatal HIV prevention program from an effective therapy to one with lesser efficacy. Had they read the full text article they would have undoubtedly realized that the study results were based on short term follow-up, a small pivotal group, incomplete data, and unlikely to be applicable to their country situation. Their decision to alter treatment based solely on the abstract’s conclusions may have resulted in increased perinatal HIV transmission.”

When I talk about open access, I often hear people say “oh, there’s some way to get at the information–you can always apply for some permit, or go to the library, etc.” Maybe they have the time and energy to do so. But when it comes to doctors in LDCs, even basic necessities are scarce. Taking time to apply for some exception to get access to vital information is the last burden we need to impose on them.

2 thoughts on “Why Abstracts Aren’t Enough”

  1. Frank, I’m sympathetic to many things about open access, but I fear that discussions of IP & development often fail to give IP owners sufficient credit for responding to the needs of people in the developing world. These folks have decent impulses too. The HINARI database ( provides free access to over 3000 journals on healthcare to institutions in countries with GNP P/A of USD1000 or less, with tiered pricing for higher income countries. Infrastructure problems and lack of familiarity often cause potential beneficiaries to miss out, although the infrastructure problems would present the same obstacles to open access information.

  2. Thank you for that info. I look forward to learning more about the tiered pricing model. But I think two ideas are paramount:

    1) is there a rationale for preserving publishers’ control of this material? or, in an ideal world, will it all migrate to PLOS format?
    2) how much effort is going into securing access to these things? I am amazed at the number of passwords I need to access each day to get at different databases, info sources, etc.

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