If you are not currently studying at a world class institution, shibboleth is one of the paywalls you are typically confronted with when you try to read an academic article.

Shibboleth The Great Irony of Shibboleth

A typical Shibboleth login screen

In fact, even if you are at a good university, you probably regularly encounter journals which your university can not afford – or does not think worthy of subscribing to. The dictionary definition of the word reads:

shib·bo·leth  noun \ˈshi-bə-ləth also -ˌleth\


a: a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning <the old shibboleths come rolling off their lips — Joseph Epstein>

b: a widely held belief <today this book publishing shibboleth is a myth — L. A. Wood>

c:truismplatitude <some truth in the shibboleth that crime does not pay — Lee Rogow>


a: a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group <accent was … a shibboleth of social class — Vivian Ducat>

b: a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others <for most of the well-to-do in the town, dinner was a shibboleth, its hour dividing mankind — Osbert Sitwell>

I found it quite amusing when the word shibboleth was used apparently unironically in a Nature blog post making the controversial argument that writers don’t necessarily have to understand the scientific papers that they write about. This blog post reiterated the shocking statement made by Nature’s online news editor Ananyo Bhattacharya that he doesn’t consider it necessary for journalists to even read a scientific paper before they report on it. The Guardian’s James Randerson makes an excellent case for why this argument is a steaming pile of erm, nonsense. Randerson does however identify one huge stumbling box for journalists – press releases often don’t come with the research attached and journalists often don’t have the time and resources to get access to the paper.

Shibboleth paywall The Great Irony of Shibboleth

Taken from the Access Management Federation advert

We are therefore in the ridiculous situation that much of what is printed in the science news columns of the main-stream press is wholly uninformed speculation about research that neither the public nor journalists can access. No wonder so many people are so turned off to science.

One solution to this problem is that researchers and funding organisations can insist on their research being published in open-access journals. In real terms there is nothing to lose and everything to gain, PLoS will waive all charges no questions asked. In cases where your copyright has already been transferred to a pay-walling publisher you can often gain permission for your work to be posted on your blog, once this is done, people will be able to track down your work using Google. I typically Google the title of a paper to see if this is the case because downloading a paper straight from the scientist’s site is a great deal faster than fumbling around with paywalls. Secondly, journalists must insist on full access to any journals they are expected to write about. If journalists make it common practice to write back to senders of press releases stating that they can not report a paper without a copy of the paper then with any luck the message will get through that this practice is unacceptable.

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  • Mary

    Not a reporter, journalist, or scientist, just an ordinary reader with eclectic and undisciplined tastes who is constantly frustrated at this insurmountable wall blocking access to a deeper understanding of aspects of history, literature, science, health, politics and more.

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