As pointed out by Keese in Correspondence (Nature 410, 1021; 2001) and in your current web debate (http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/index.html), lack of access to scientific information is a widespread problem. I have experimented with a means for obtaining free books and distributing them to individuals and libraries, and believe this technique could be widely used.
The cost of extending print runs to produce extra copies of books is reasonably small — comparable to typical royalties. When I completed a conservation textbook for Blackwell Scientific, the publisher agreed to my suggestion that, in lieu of royalties, it would provide me with a free copy for each one sold. My aim was to send the book out to practising conservationists who would otherwise be unlikely to obtain it. The online bookshop nhbs.com (http://www.nhbs.com) offered to coordinate the distribution, and the Christensen Fund kindly paid for the postage.
As this scheme became known, we received many requests and suggestions for recipients (we welcome further suggestions — please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org). Within a few months of publication we were able to send out more than 1,250 copies of the book to people in 126 developing countries.
Such schemes could be widely applied to scientific and technical books, and everyone will benefit if the following three suggestions are followed. First, authors could ask publishers to provide all or some of their royalties in the form of extra copies. Authors write to be read, and this procedure greatly increases the distribution and hence the readership of a book. Second, academic societies and grant-awarding bodies could allocate funds for posting books, a very cost-effective means of promoting a subject. The distribution could be carried out at cost price, organized either through an academic body, through the author's institution or through a commercial organization. The distributor can gain some excellent publicity by doing this. Third, publishers could advertise the fact that they are happy to proceed with such arrangements.
The charity Book Aid International (http://www.bookaid.org; email@example.com) has also expressed an interest in distributing suitable books through its network.
The scheme offers clear advantages to publishers, as it improves their image and may attract authors. In the current case, the publisher believes the offer has increased sales.
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Four barriers to the global understanding of biodiversity conservation: wealth, language, geographical location and security
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2013)