Are the papers behind this year's Nobel Prizes in the public domain?

Note: One of my editors thought this post would work for The Wire as well, so it’s been republished there.

“… for the greatest benefit of mankind” – these words are scrawled across a banner that adorns the Nobel Prize’s homepage. They are the words of Alfred Nobel, who instituted the prizes and bequeathed his fortunes to run the foundation that awards them. The words were chosen by the prize’s awarders to denote the significance of their awardees’ accomplishments.

However, the scientific papers that first described these accomplishments in the technical literature are often not available in the public domain. They languish behind paywalls erected by the journals that publish them, that seek to cash in on their importance to the advancement of science. Many of these papers are also funded by public money, but that hasn’t deterred journals and their publishers from keeping the papers out of public reach. How then can they be for the greatest benefit of mankind?


I’ve listed some of the more important papers published by this year’s laureates; they describe work that earned them their respective prizes. Please remember that my choice of papers is selective; where I have found other papers that are fully accessible – or otherwise – I have provided a note. This said, I picked the papers from the scientific background document first and then checked if they were accessible, not the other way round. (If you, whoever you are, are interested in replicating my analysis but more thoroughly, be my guest; I will help you in any way I can.)

A laureate may have published many papers collectively for which he was awarded (this year’s science laureates are all male). I’ve picked the papers most proximate to their citation from the references listed in the ‘advanced scientific background’ section available for each prize on the Nobel Prize website. Among publishers, the worst offender appears – to no one’s surprise – to be Elsevier.

A paper title in green indicates it’s in the public domain; red indicates it isn’t – both on the pages of the journal itself. Some titles in red maybe available in full elsewhere, such as in university archives. The names of laureates in the papers’ citations are underlined.


“for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”

The paywall for papers by Young and Rosbash published in Nature were lifted by the journal on the day their joint Nobel Prize was announced. Until then, they’d been inaccessible to the general public. Interestingly, both papers acknowledge funding grants from the US National Institutes of Health, a tax-funded body of the US government.

Michael Young

Restoration of circadian behavioural rhythms by gene transfer in Drosophila – Nature 312, 752 – 754 (20 December 1984); doi:10.1038/312752a0 link

Isolation of timeless by PER protein interaction: defective interaction between timeless protein and long-period mutant PERL – Gekakis, N., Saez, L., Delahaye-Brown, A.M., Myers, M.P., Sehgal, A., Young, M.W., and Weitz, C.J. (1995). Science 270, 811–815. link

Michael Rosbash

Feedback of the Drosophila period gene product on circadian cycling of its messenger RNA levels – Nature 343, 536 – 540 (08 February 1990); doi:10.1038/343536a0 link

The period gene encodes a predominantly nuclear protein in adult Drosophila – Liu, X., Zwiebel, L.J., Hinton, D., Benzer, S., Hall, J.C., and Rosbash, M. (1992). J Neurosci 12, 2735–2744. link

Jeffrey Hall

Molecular analysis of the period locus in Drosophila melanogaster and identification of a transcript involved in biological rhythms – Reddy, P., Zehring, W.A., Wheeler, D.A., Pirrotta, V., Hadfield, C., Hall, J.C., and Rosbash, M. (1984). Cell 38, 701–710. link

P-element transformation with period locus DNA restores rhythmicity to mutant, arrhythmic Drosophila melanogaster – Zehring, W.A., Wheeler, D.A., Reddy, P., Konopka, R.J., Kyriacou, C.P., Rosbash, M., and Hall, J.C. (1984). Cell 39, 369–376. link

Antibodies to the period gene product of Drosophila reveal diverse tissue distribution and rhythmic changes in the visual system – Siwicki, K.K., Eastman, C., Petersen, G., Rosbash, M., and Hall, J.C. (1988). Neuron 1, 141–150. link


“for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”

While results from the LIGO detector were published in peer-reviewed journals, the development of the detector itself was supported by personnel and grants from MIT and Caltech. As a result, the Nobel laureates’ more important contributions were published as a reports since archived by the LIGO collaboration and made available in the public domain.

Rainer Weiss

Quarterly progress reportR. Weiss, MIT Research Lab of Electronics 105, 54 (1972) link

The Blue BookR. Weiss, P.R. Saulson, P. Linsay and S. Whitcomb link


“for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”

The journal Cell, in which the chemistry laureates appear to have published many papers, publicised a collection after the Nobel Prize was announced. Most papers in the collection are marked ‘Open Archive’ and are readable in full. However, the papers cited by the Nobel Committee in its scientific background document don’t appear there. I also don’t know whether the papers in the collection available in full were always available in full.

Jacques Dubochet

Cryo-electron microscopy of vitrified specimens – Dubochet, J., Adrian, M., Chang, J.-J., Homo, J.-C., Lepault, J., McDowall, A. W., and Schultz, P. (1988). Q. Rev. Biophys. 21, 129-228 link

Vitrification of pure water for electron microscopyDubochet, J., and McDowall, A. W. (1981). J. Microsc. 124, 3-4 link

Cryo-electron microscopy of viruses – Adrian, M., Dubochet, J., Lepault, J., and McDowall, A. W. (1984). Nature 308, 32-36 link

Joachim Frank

Averaging of low exposure electron micrographs of non-periodic objectsFrank, J. (1975). Ultramicroscopy 1, 159-162 link

Three-dimensional reconstruction from a single-exposure, random conical tilt series applied to the 50S ribosomal subunit of Escherichia coli – Radermacher, M., Wagenknecht, T., Verschoor, A., and Frank, J. (1987). J. Microsc. 146, 113-136 link

SPIDER-A modular software system for electron image processingFrank, J., Shimkin, B., and Dowse, H. (1981). Ultramicroscopy 6, 343-357 link

Richard Henderson

Model for the structure of bacteriorhodopsin based on high-resolution electron cryo-microscopyHenderson, R., Baldwin, J. M., Ceska, T. A., Zemlin, F., Beckmann, E., and Downing, K. H. (1990). J. Mol. Biol. 213, 899-929 link

The potential and limitations of neutrons, electrons and X-rays for atomic resolution microscopy of unstained biological moleculesHenderson, R. (1995). Q. Rev. Biophys. 28, 171-193 link (available in full here)


By locking the red-tagged papers behind a paywall – often impossible to breach because of the fees involved – they’re kept out of hands of less-well-funded institutions and libraries, particularly researchers in countries whose currencies have lower purchasing power. More about this here and here. But the more detestable thing with the papers listed above is that the latest of them (among the reds) was published in 1995, fully 22 years ago, and the earliest, 42 years go – both on cryo-electron microscopy. Both represent almost unforgivable durations across which to have paywalls, with the journals Nature and Cell further attempting to ride the Nobel wave for attention. It’s not clear if the papers they’ve liberated from behind the paywall will always be available for free hence either.

Read all this in the context of the Nobel Prizes not being awarded to more than three people at a time and maybe you’ll see how much of scientific knowledge is truly out of bounds of most of humankind.

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.