Published on May 21, 2013

Paywalls and open access

As a student at Central Michigan University, I’m granted access to a multitude of academic journals. The most reputable of these journals circulate revolutionary insights that aim to tackle some of the most pressing and fascinating queries of this century: HIV treatment, bacterial antibiotic resistance, quantum theory, and global climate change. At any moment, I can log onto the university library’s website and access a research article about the latest and greatest research on nearly any topic, of any field of study. In the case that I might not have access to that specific article, I can request to borrow it from another institution. Essentially, I have access to a seemingly endless amount of knowledge and information.

This system is adopted by institutions across the globe as the way to share knowledge. Thus, it’s important that it works efficiently to foster scientific inquiry and discovery.

Unfortunately, there’s a glaring hole in the system and it has to do with who has access to this information. Before I identify this issue, I’d like to do a quick crash course about the process of funding, publishing, and accessing academic research for my readers that may be unfamiliar. For those well-versed in the process of academic research, feel free to skip this part.

Step 1. A researcher at a university (graduate student, tenured faculty member, postdoc) comes up with a bright idea for a research project. Before they start performing experiments and collecting data, they need money. So they ask (plead?) government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, or Environmental Protection Agency to help fund their project. These chunks of monies, known as grants, are pivotal in academic researchers’ careers. Simply, because without them, they wouldn’t be able to conduct the research projects they’re passionate about. Additionally, the amount of grant monies accrued throughout a academic’s career is a huge determinant in becoming a tenured faculty member.

Step 2. Researchers spend months (sometimes years) painstakingly conducting experiments, tests, interviews, etc. More months (maybe years) are spent crunching numbers, analyzing data, and compiling results into one sacred document known as a manuscript.

Step 3. Researchers then submit their manuscript to an academic journal that publishes research related to their project. Oh yeah, did I mention that researchers have to pay the journals just to submit their manuscript for review?! This fee is sometimes as high as $200. The journal then passes on the manuscript to experts on the manuscript’s topic at universities all over the world. These reviewers volunteer their time and expertise to the journal to check for validity in experimental design and data analysis, and decide whether or not the project makes a worthwhile contribution to the field. It’s an incredibly scrutinous process. If it passes the test, the manuscript will be accepted for publication! If not, it is either rejected with suggestions for edits or otherwise rejected wholly. Bummer.

Step 4. Accepted manuscripts are published by journals, typically in online databases (some still provide print editions). Those individuals and institutions with subscriptions to the journals have unlimited access to their publications, while those who don’t are plain out of luck (unless of course they want to dish out ~$30 per article).

So where’s the glaring hole?

Those with access to academic journals are either a) enrolled in an institution that provides them with access (like a university) or b) paying a huge chunk of moolah for individual subscriptions. Who does that leave out? A lot of people that don’t have the funds to pay for a $100/year subscription to a journal such as ‘Nature’ or ‘The Journal of Chemical Education’. And another group that recognizes the folly of paying to read the results of a research project they’ve already paid for with their tax dollars.

Accessing academic research is expensive for individuals and even more so for institutions. The rates charged for an institutional subscription to a journal is higher than an individual subscription - it makes sense, since at a university thousands of individuals have access to a journal’s articles rather than just one. But these steep subscription rates (upwards of $1,000/year, some reaching $40,000/year, depending on the journal) in combination with the demand for university libraries to hold the most up-to-date research, is putting many universities in untenable financial situations.

In April 2012, the Harvard University Faculty Advisory Council wrote this memorandum to notify faculty members of the dire state of the library’s budget. They wrote that the library’s annual cost for journal subscriptions was approaching $3.75 million, a cost they could not maintain, especially in the midst of rising subscription prices. They described these fees as “academically restrictive” and “fiscally unsustainable”.

Let’s put this in perspective. Harvard University, the university with the largest endowment in the U.S. (over $31 billion), can’t afford to sustain their subscriptions to academic journals. *gulp* I think we’re in trouble.

I’m certainly not the first to draw attention to this growing concern. It’s a hot topic among academics and many institutions are developing major restructuring of the current information-sharing system.

One such model that aims to restructure this system is open access, a model of unrestricted sharing of journal articles. Sounds simple enough, right?

What’s the status of open access?

  • The Harvard Open Access Project is a great example of an institution developing, implementing, and evaluating an open access model. They provide consultation to other institutions experimenting with open-access and maintain updates about the status of open access policy.
  • One federal agency, the National Institute of Health, requires that research funded by their agency be published to the an open-access database, PubMed. This means that anyone can access this research. Hooray!
  • Arxiv.org is a product of Cornell University. Check it out. Pretty cool stuff.
  • In February of this year, the director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy notified federal agencies of a deadline (August 22, 2013) to design a plan that would make research funded by their agency publicly accessible. There is conversation that many will implement a 12 month window to make articles freely accessible after publication. This is just talk, but it’s something!
  • Many universities, like Harvard, are encouraging their faculty members to submit their research to open-access journals, or those who charge reasonable subscription fees (typically not-for-profit journals).
  • Events such as Open Access Week raise awareness about the many paywalls involved in accessing academic research.

What’s halting the progress of open access?

  • Across most disciplines, the most highly respected journals are the most expensive. They have a huge amount of power in the market to keep their prices high and they know it.
  • There’s great prestige in getting a publication in a highly-regarded journal. Many academics support the idea of open access journals, but the hierarchy of academia pressures them to publish in big name journals that charge excessive fees. Commercial publishers like Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Springer have huge profit margins (think 30-40%) that outrank even some of the most notoriously greedy corporations. Can you guess what Walmart’s profit margin is? About 4%. Yup, so for every $1 you give to one of these commercial publishing companies, they (and their shareholders) pocket $.40 as opposed to Walmart pocketing $.04. So why don’t we stop subscribing to the journal packages that these commercial publishers sell? They house top-notch journals that publish top-notch research. If libraries don’t purchase their subscriptions, researchers don’t have access to the latest and greatest findings in their fields of study. Ahh, greed at its finest.
  • The cost for library subscriptions bundles is subjective and very secretive. I spoke with the Director of Collection Development at CMU’s library who was unfortunately unable to share exactly how much the university library pays for individual subscriptions to commercial publishers like SAGE, Wiley-Blackwell, Elsevier, and Emerald. The publishers require libraries to be contractually bound to keep these values private. Why does this matter? It takes away the bartering power of libraries and allows publishers to charge dizzying prices without contest.
  • Tragic stories like that of Aaron Swartz, an internet activist, computer programmer, and open source advocate that was exorbitantly charged for downloading a number of articles from JSTOR with the intent of making them publicly available. Believed to be a result of the criminal charges facing him, he committed suicide this January. You can read more about Aaron’s passion for open access and the advocacy work he did here or at [aaronsw.com]().

Here’s the good news - there are people taking organized action to make widespread open access a reality. Will it happen anytime soon? I don’t think anyone can answer that question confidently. This is a deeply-seeded structural issue that will require careful organization and action by the big players (like Harvard) for change to catch on.

Academic journals and commercial publishers have their hands wrought tightly around the neck of academic inquiry. The future of innovation and information-sharing in all fields is on the line. So what can we do? For starters, become informed. Know the ins and outs of how the system works. I think then you’ll realize that things don’t have to stay the way they are, just because that’s how they are now. Systems change because people speak up, organize, and take action.