Why the heck aren’t research papers free?

2016-03-14 13.37.23

*yelling* Is this even a question? Of course they…

Should all research papers be free?

Um. Yeah. Obviously. Scientific knowledge doesn’t do much good if it’s all locked up, only accessible to the rich and/or privileged.

When I put it that way, I never get much argument.1

In fact, the majority of scientists I know tend to agree. They want their work to be readable to the most people possible. If someone is as interested as me in how overwintering soybean aphid eggs acquire heat from sunlight due to their coloration and placement on the plant good lord I don’t want anything to stand in their way because this person will, very likely, be my new best friend. But things do stand in the way (yup, my article above is paywalled  ETA: hey cool! looks like the embargo period is over! read all about my cool model, everyone!!), and it doesn’t just make scientists lonelier people.2 It keeps the science out of the hands of the farmers who may be looking to my research to figure out if she has to worry about soybean aphids next season. It keeps science out of the hands of the policy maker that is writing regulations and guidelines about how to deal with invasive species. It keeps it out of the hands of the scientists in developing countries that are trying to crack a similar problem in their landscapes with resources much more limited than what we’re privileged to have here in North America. It wastes time. It wastes brain power.

Not having open access to scientific research hurts us. It hurts people. Many have been screaming it from the rooftops. The problem is many, many papers are ‘protected’ under copyright, and these copyrights are enforced by for-profit publishers. The law is, unfortunately on their side (at least in the US), which means they can, and do take vindictive action against those seen to be in violation of the law. The long-term solution is that these laws need to change- they need to change so they protect the interests of science, scientists, and humanity. Not large corporate publishing houses.

Why haven’t scientists all gotten together to take a stand? Well, they have. We have. Scientists are increasingly choosing to publish their work in open access venues.3 This is good. This is important. But there is still a heck of a lot of human knowledge still going into closed venues. The reason? Costs. Costs, measured in money, time and professional prestige. This is how they get us, this is how they persist.

The big publishing houses are nothing if not very clever with developing their business model. They have created a market where they are the arbiters of ‘quality’ of science that is self-reinforcing. Scientists are busy people. The higher rank you achieve,  the busier you are. Publishers capitalize on that by creating exclusive journals- essentially filtering4 the scientific product for the busy scientist. These contributions that make it past these filters are valued more in this paradigm, thus the scientists authoring these contributions are valued more, are more likely to be promoted. You can see how this value system propagates itself- and thus, there’s a direct incentive to buy into the system.

I mostly fight this aspect of the system by yelling at it. It works, sometimes.

The other disincentive, though, is something I struggle with more, because no amount of yelling helps.

In a lot of cases, publishing in open access journals (or paying for the open access option in a ‘regular’ journal) is prohibitively expensive at the individual lab level. PLoS One, for example, cost $1450 last time I looked. In a discussion on Facebook this weekend, a friend cited a $640 bill from PeerJ.5 You can often publish closed access for much less, or even free in journals under the purview of the big publishers. This can be difficult to justify when you don’t have a large research budget and you need to pay an extra semester of GRA stipend for a student whose experiment took longer than expected.6

The situation is even complicated  for small-medium society journals. For example, in the journal I published in most early in my career, Environmental Entomology, there is no publication fee for members of the society for subscriber-only access, but open access fees for the same paper start at $2000USD. I love the ESA and what they do, and I know that they use the revenues they make from both subscriptions and open access fees to support society activities- our annual meeting, scholarships for students, funds to help support parents in science- things I’ve personally benefited from. This model has always worked for the society and I know they’re hesitant to change it.

There are a few outlets and workarounds. For example, Royal Society Open Science currently doesn’t have publication charges (and they cover the cost of a data submission to Dryad!). Another friend  at another large American university told me that her library has a program to help researchers offset the costs of open access publication (you just need to apply for funds VERY EARLY in the fiscal year, because the money is snapped up quickly due to high demand). We can advocate this approach to our own libraries- eventually, the budget allocated to subscription fees could be allocated to open access charges instead. I feel like this is the most likely long-term solution. But the patchwork of current availability means that, unfortunately, change to an entirely open access model is not immediately feasible for many labs. Combine that with the professional disincentives, and it’s clear we still have a lot of work to do on the road to open access to scientific information.


This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night, you know. But we will get there.

1. This may be because I’m scary when I start on about the morality of open access. But…You’d tell me if I was scary. Right? RIGHT?!
2. Please, email me for a reprint, my secret friend.
3. This content better not be paywalled. It would reach a critical level of irony. The world might implode.
4. Filtering for…well that depends. Some might argue they filter for the most sensationalized, oversold, and likely irreproducible science. I’d never make that claim without data though.
5. This is even more painful when you consider exchange rates. Canadian researchers are plagued with a weak dollar right now, for example.
6. You want this student to, y’know, be able to eat and live and stuff.


About cbahlai

Hi! I'm Christie and I'm an applied quantitative ecologist and new professor. I am an #otherpeoplesdata wrangler, stats enthusiast, and, of course, a bug counter. I cohabitate with five other vertebrates: one spouse, one first grader, one preschooler and two cats.
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4 Responses to Why the heck aren’t research papers free?

  1. Well said. And yes, we will eventually get there.
    On the topic of your Environmental Entomology paper, you can always archive it (and thus make it Open Access) yourself or through your institutional repository: http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/issn/0046-225X/
    A tiny crack in the paywall, but a crack nevertheless… Soybean aphid wisdom to the masses!

  2. Alex Bond says:

    Yes, money plays a big role in where stuff gets submitted. Historically, before the mass onslaught of non-society journals, this was in the form of page charges. But when the likes of Springer, Wiley, and Elsevier (among others) began to crank out scholarly journals that were readily adopted by the field and had no page charges (because the money came from the high price of subscriptions to libraries), we collectively jumped at it. When so much science is done either without explicit grant support, or long after the grants have ended (#otherpeoplesdata, for example), free options are attractive. And like it or not, where we publish still matters (https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/does-where-academics-publish-matter-yes-but-it-shouldnt/) and there are still some barriers to OA publishing (though it’s getting better; https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/barriers-to-open-access-publishing-at-a-scientific-not-for-profit/)

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