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  • Sherin Thomas

Science behind a paywall

Written for Ours, Scientifica for the NUS Science Journalism Club

In 2019, University of California (UC), one of America’s largest academic institutions, encompassing UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, and several other campuses, joined a string of universities in dropping its nearly $11 million annual subscription to Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of academic journals (Public Affairs, UC Berkeley, 2019). As a result, its students and staff, including the 27,500 scientists who contribute to nearly 10 percent of all academic research papers published in the United States, are denied direct access to much of the world’s research that they do not engage in (Public Affairs, UC Berkeley, 2019).

To the casual eye, this would seem peculiar; what could induce UC to cut off staff and students from academic research? Upon further analysis, their decision appeared justified. The academic publishing business model is simply indefensible. But this is not just a story about subscription fees. It is about how a private industry has come to dominate and practically own the most critical pillar of science: scientific research.

How did we end up here?

In the late 17th century, scientific journals sprouted alongside the printing industry with the intent to advance scientific knowledge, avoid duplication of results and to critically evaluate the work published by scientists via the peer review process (Belluz & Resnick, 2019). Slowly but surely, the way scientific information was disseminated shifted from personal correspondence through letters and societal meetings to a more structured and regular distribution of scientific knowledge via monthly journals. The first scientific journals, Journal Des Sçavans and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London sold subscriptions and were distributed via mail (Belluz & Resnick, 2019). It was not the vastly profitable industry it is today. In the post-WWIIera, these European journals began to target American universities inundated with Cold-War research funding (Belluz & Resnick, 2019).As more and more journals began popping up, publishers began consolidating the competition, transforming what was once a diffuse business into an oligopoly, a market owned exclusively by a small number of firms. In the late 20th century, five companies, namely Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis, emerged as the primary publishers of nearly a fifth of all natural and medical scientific articles, according to a report published in PLOS (Public Library of Science) One (Pariente, 2020). Today, Elsevier, the biggest and most powerful academic publisher in the world, which publishes nearly half a million articles in its 3,000 journals (of which the influential Cell is a part), embodies the ethical problems faced by the academic publishing industry (Belluz & Resnick, 2019).

With the consolidation of competition, one can reasonably expect an increase in profit margins since publishers can get away with charging high prices. The high subscription rate seemed inexorable and somewhat justifiable before the Digital Age. After all, in the pre-internet age, academic publishers were not just charging for access to these articles. They were charging for the cost of typesetting (a significant factor before the advent of electronic typesetting), the cost of publishing printed copies of journals and the cost of distributing these journals to subscribers, which were mainly academic libraries (Belluz & Resnick, 2019).

With the advent of the internet, the articles were mainly disseminated as electronic PDFs which translated to reduced cost of publishing articles.

Surely, this reduced cost of production would lead to lower subscription fees for most subscribers?

Alas, instead of adapting their pricing and business model to fit the new no-cost means of disseminating scientific information, journal publishers were given the privilege to raise their prices due to the consolidation of competition and persistent demand for their product – research articles. To justify their price hike, academic publishers argue that with the new mode of digital publishing, publishers face a multitude of additional costs such as the need to invest in digital infrastructure (Schekman, 2019). Additionally, they argue that as the volume of articles they publish every year increases the cost of publishing, subscription fees should reflect the increased costs. (Schekman, 2019)

These arguments seem to invalidated by the stark increase in subscription price from 1993 to 2014. According to the Association of Research Libraries, in a study investigating the average change in spending by universities, a reported 523 percent increase in “ongoing resources expenditure”, which includes spending on academic journals, was detected from 1986 and 2014 (ARL Statistics Survey Statistical Trends). This was far greater than 197 percent increase in total expenditure or the 118 percent increase in Consumer Price Index (CPI), which refers to the average price of common household goods and which serves as a proxy for inflation (Belluz & Resnick, 2019). This seems to indicate, rather pointedly, that publishers have the clout to raise subscription prices more flexibly (and without impunity) than firms in other industries.

This corporate scam alone should suffice a referral to competition authorities and a boycott of their services. However, one becomes more alarmed about the dire state of scientific research when they consider the peculiar economics of scholarly publishing.

Firstly, the demand for publications that belong to these companies is inelastic (Schmitt, 2019). This means that universities are locked into buying the product as an academic paper can only be published in one place and they have to be read by researchers who are trying to keep up with their research. Additionally, rather than selling academic libraries the journals and articles they require, academic publishers force universities to purchase a large collection of journals, whether they want them or not. As such, rather than paying for journals that readers demand for, universities have to spend vast sums of money to pay for journals that no one reads. For instance, in 2018, University of Virginia paid Springer Nature $1 million for nearly 4,000 journals, which includes 1,400 journals that no one accessed such as the Moscow University Chemistry Bulletin (Belluz & Resnick, 2019).

Secondly, academic publishers are paid by the scientific community to publish theirpeer-reviewed articles. Academics are not paid by publishers for their contributions to the journal and are often asked to pay a fee to submit articles before their research is published in the journal (Schmitt, 2019). Also, the peer reviewers, who are responsible for making sure that the scientific integrity of research articles are not compromised, are not paid either. More importantly, the material that is published by the academics is not funded by publishers but by us, the taxpayer, through academic stipends and government research grants (Schekman, 2019). To see the fruits of their labour, however, we have to pay through the nose again and again.

Think of it this way: Suppose you purchased a vineyard and hired a company to oversee the maintenance of the land. Imagine that this company forced the workers to pay them a fee for working on the land. Suppose this company refuses to pay the overseers in charge of making sure the land was maintained and safeguarded from external threats. Imagine again that this companybuilds a wall around the field and charged you, the owner of the land, a six-figure sum to enter the lands annually. Consider the above as an allegory for the state of scientific research and you can begin to see the kind of economic parasitism pervading the academic publishing industry.

These economic parasites have taken over the world – and we just have not noticed. They have morphed to become a part of us, making us perform all the work needed to keep them alive and help them reproduce.

If we continue to build a wall around science, scholars cannot read the latest research and that hinders the research they can do and impedes the progress of humanity (Schmitt, 2019). If we continue to support an industry that places a padlock on the gates to scientific research, patients cannot access and read the research on their conditions even though they are paid for by the taxpayers. If we continue to this tax on education, we are stifling the public mind and restricting access to science and other academic research which is needed to make coherent democratic decisions (Schekman, 2019).

There is hope, however. There is a small army of people who are dissenting against the status quo. This band of revolutionaries is mutinying against the academic publishing industry on three fronts. They include scientists who are increasingly aware that they do not need paywalled academic journals to act as gatekeepers and increasingly publishing in open-access journals where the scientific content is free for the public and the publisher does not own the work, open access crusaders or pirates who create alternatives to liberate paywalled journal articles such as the (illegal) website Sci-Hub and force publishers to reduce subscription costs and increase accessibility, and universities such as the University of California and Harvard who have threatened to boycott major for-profit publishers (Belluz & Resnick, 2019). In particular, a 2012 campaign launched by Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers called the “Cost of Knowledge” (http://thecostofknowledge.com/) asked researchers to protest against the business model of Elsevier by ceasing to submit, referee and edit research articles to the company.

If the efforts of these individuals do prevail and the paywalls locking scientific research do crumble and fall, the impact would reverberate internationally.

There is a major obstacle, however, that could get in the way of this revolution and that is the culture of science itself. When publication in prestigious journals is itself necessary for researchers to advance their careers and secure grants, we will continue to see prestige-obsessed scientists who continue to publish in closed-access journals and perpetuate the cycle. They are like the proverbial workers who work to eke out a living and then surrender their feu to the lairds of learning so that they can continue toiling on the lands. This does not have to be the case. Until we change the culture of science itself, the paywall will remain firmly intact.

References

  • Belluz, J., & Resnick, B. (2019, June 10). The war to free science. Retrieved August 2019, from Vox: https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/3/18271538/open-access-elsevier-california-sci-hub-academic-paywalls

  • Pariente, N. (2020). The future of PLOS Biology. PLOS Biology .

  • Public Affairs, UC Berkeley. (2019, June 20). Randy Schekman: Don’t put science ‘behind a paywall’. Retrieved August 2019, from Berkeley News: https://news.berkeley.edu/story_jump/randy-schekman-dont-put-science-behind-a-paywall/

  • Schekman, R. (2019, June 20). Scientific Research Shouldn’t Sit behind a Paywall. Retrieved August 2019, from Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/scientific-research-shouldnt-sit-behind-a-paywall/

  • Schmitt, J. (2019, March 28). Paywalls block scientific progress. Research should be open to everyone . Retrieved August 2019, from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/28/paywalls-block-scientific-progress-research-should-be-open-to-everyone


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