But imagine if life or death did ride on getting the full text of a document, instead of, say, just the abstract? In an editorial in the most recent Bulletin of the World Health Organization, "The Impact of Open Access on Public Health," we are presented with just such an anecdote.
"Arthur Amman, President of Global Strategies for HIV Prevention tells the following 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 were 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 transmision.'"
The reporter in me would like a little more specificity in this anecdote -- some names that could be fact-checked, for example. It sounds almost too good to be true, as if custom-designed for the purposes of the four authors of the article --- who are all employed by the Public Library of Science, a pioneer in publishing peer-reviewed open-access academic papers. But even as a hypothetical, the story would still illustrate a crucial point. When you inject the topic of public health into the domain of intellectual property you immediately fling yourself into an arena where ethical responsibilities and economic interests clash.
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