While some companies hope an iTunes-like approach to distributing scientific papers on the cheap will get journal articles into the hands of people who need them, a new study shows that many medical students are already taking the Napster approach. A new paper studying the downloading habits of medical students found 125,000 users of peer-to-peer filesharing services who obtained some 5,000 scientific papers for free, circumventing the usual $30 fee.

This paper greatly complicates the issue of open access science journals. On the one hand, the users of the site knowingly stole copyrighted material. On the other, one could reasonably say that medical students, nurses and doctors should have access to information that could help them in their job of saving lives without the barrier of cost.

The downloading habits of the users of the site mirrored the general impact of scientific papers. Journal articles from Science and Nature received the most traffic, with Nature dominating the list with 118 papers.

In many ways, this paper raises more questions than it answers, like “why couldn’t doctors and medical students access these papers for free, like college students can?” Certainly, as both the interest in viewing, and the fees for viewing, scientific papers rises, more and more instances of paper piracy will come to light. I guess everyone should just be happy that no one in Metallica is a doctor.

[via Ars Technica]