Over the past few weeks, there has been an interesting set of discussions about whether the Liberian part of the Ebola outbreak this winter was foretold and therefore could have been stopped earlier. Writing an op-ed in the New York Times, several researchers noted that they recently “stumbled across” an article indicating the reasonable likelihood that Liberia would be faced with cases of Ebola, which turned out to have been one of several studies predicting Liberia being in the zone of likely exposure for the virus. Public health officials had not acted on this known likelihood. The question is why.

These authors focused on the fact that the study in question was conducted by Europeans rather than in partnership with Liberians, limiting its ability to be discovered or have impact given the way that public health information flows operate, in their view. But several others note that these scientific conclusions were published in traditional journals, rather than under open access conditions, making it onerous if not impossible for the nation most directly in need of this information to access it.

It turns out that at least some of the articles in question, even though published in traditional journals, should have been accessible to Liberian researchers and health officials under the terms of the Research4Life program. It is unclear whether the relevant institutions registered to set up access. But even if they did so, I wonder if this is enough.

Having recently written about some of the various impediments facing researchers even when seeking to access materials their universities have licensed, I couldn’t help but see this dynamic as having some similarities. Can a researcher use the increasingly advanced discovery tools and practices that so many of us take for granted and then link seamlessly to free and reduced cost access models such as those provided by Research4Life? It would not make sense to treat the HINARI health resources available through Research4Life as the primary starting point for nearly any kind of research, but does starting from Google, Google Scholar, PubMed, or other more appropriate search services lead to a no-access dead-end?

The efforts to address access barriers in the developing world are important, but linking discovery together with access is vital for researchers.

Thanks to David Crotty, Jill O’Neill, and Richard Poynder, for an exchange on twitter that stimulated this post.