Frustrated with Paywalls for Scientific Papers-Rant

I’m going to rant a bit here…

I’ve been researching several subjects and finding lots of the scientific papers that are important in the field that I want tor ead. I’ve got the abstracts but I want to go back to the original research and see the wole thing.

Sadly a large number of these relevant and useful references are hidden. In many cases the research they report on was paid for in part by public funds yet since I am not associated with any university if I want to get them it’s somehting like $30-$50 per PDF copy. With over 50 that I need just with a few days of researching that is unaffordable.

I’ve searched research gate, academia, google scholar and more places but these papers are really just flat not available.

When it was just one or 2 I could sometimes coerce a friend who is at a university to get them for me but some of them ar enote even avaialble to that university.

I really don’t understand the whole pay to publish your research then pay to access for everyone that is not a University student or professor mindset of academia. To me the more knowledge that is availabel from peer reviewed scientific papers no matter the subject the better for humanity in general.

I’m seriously thinking of trying to get accepted to a university and take a single class a semester just to get access to scientific papers!

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I’ll only observe that many people in this situation use SciHub.

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A bit too risky for me. SciHub is more than a way to avoid paying a research paper paywall fee for PDFs.

In general, you don’t pay to publish. Publishing is free, unless you pay for the Open Access fee. When I had my paper published, there was no fee to pay at all. The money doesn’t come to the researchers, it all goes to the publishers, which is why it’s been considered to be a bit of a racket.

There does seem to be growing trend (at least in my field), that open access is increasing - meaning the researchers pay up front to publish and then the knowledge is available free for anyone after, though open access fees aren’t cheap for the researchers.

Just to point out as well that not all universities have access to the same papers! It depends on the subscription to the journals, so even getting in to a Uni may not help. For example, my current one doesn’t have much of a Civil Engineering department, so any related to that aren’t as common as the University I completed my doctorate and bachelors at. Likewise, my current one has a vet school, so it has access to more science related journals than my previous institutions. If it’s not covered by the University subscription, we have to pay as well. Completing my PhD, I had to make a number of paper purchase, and pay for interlibrary loans with the British Library (and I would essentially get a photocopied paper!) Each one had to be signed by my supervisor and paid for by the project budget.

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A related issue - perhaps of even greater concern - is that of the paywalled articles in the sciences (especially medicine), a stunning percentage are owned/controlled by one publisher: Elsevier


As @drezha has said, scientific publishing is a bit of a racket.

Publishers used to get income from hard copy subscriptions, either from libraries or professional societies or individuals. In the old days, authors could also pay an additional fee for “pre-prints”. These were specially formatted hard copies that authors could distribute freely to whomever. As I recall, the fees were perhaps in the range of a hundred dollars or less.

In those days, the public could have access to the journal article in one of two ways: Pay for a subscription to the journal or have permission to utilize resources at a public (university) library where the journals were freely available for photocopying.

These options are drying up or have dried up.

Now, when an author can publish for free, the new paradigm is to have a publishing fee to the author for the publisher to provide the article via Open Access. Open Access fees can range to a few thousand dollars directly to the author. And in the meantime publishers (so it is said) have become administratively top-heavy monopolies (e.g. Elsevier) whose intent is no longer to disseminate quality information in print but rather to make a killing in salaries for their executive board members.

What to do?

You could register as a non-degree student at your local university for a one-credit course in … basket-weaving or racket-ball or The Internet of Things … :slight_smile:. You might be afforded access to the university’s library search and database, even with the age-old, time-honored Inter-Library Loan method in place. Ask before you jump. And, again as @drezha has said, check the subscriptions available directly and via Inter-Library Loan. You’d not want to pay for a course at a university only to find out that the university can only afford the subscription fee for access to Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics.

I had a somewhat cynical take on the statement about disseminating knowledge to a wider swatch of humanity. I’ll hold my thoughts only to say that I strongly agree but, sadly though, this is, for various reasons, not the vision of publishers.

Edit: You might try one other approach. Contact the primary author directly and request a copy. Explain your situation. For comparison, as an author in the hard sciences, I am not inclined to give out my publications on requests from university-affiliates (e.g via ResearchGate or LinkedIn). I would however bend a bit to accommodate a direct email that has a background statement that shows simply a strong personal interest to read further on something that I’ve written.



Do tell.

Also you can use Brave browser with a Tor window and no one will know. And/or a VPN.


Similarly, my understanding is that many academics don’t usually see any of the money that’s made by this, and they are happy to send a copy of their paper, for free, to people who ask (because what they really want is people to read their work).

But, that gets time-consuming with the number of papers that you’re talking about.

I wonder who is making money out of these paywalls… surely someone must be, but the whole thing seems to have gotten to the point where it’s more of a hindrance.

IANAMBA, but maybe some day a large university will decide to forego the pennies they probably make from these deals and just start posting things to their own website, which will draw more attention to their institution and the research being done.


To the contrary, universities pay big money in subscriptions to journals.

Apparently I was not clear… I know that universities pay big money to these paywall companies.

My point was that I don’t think the universities are getting much money from these paywall companies.

So… the universities hire professors to do research… they do the research… the university has it… and then they send it off to a company so that other places have to pay for it.

Then these universities have to pay for research from all of the other universities.

It’s absurd!

An alternative would be: each university create a section of their website where this research is available. Maybe give a certain publisher exclusivity for a year or two so you can recoup some of the costs, but then the publishing rights should go back to the authors and their institutions.

Most of these paywall companies offer no real benefit to the world.

You can buy a book on Amazon for a few bucks, but an academic paper is $30-50? Makes no sense.

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No. What the university gets in return in the accolades that come from supporting faculty researchers who publish in journals with high impact factors.

The peer-review process to get a paper into a journal affords researchers an opportunity to sharpen their skills even as the process itself has its own down-sides. Universities do publish their research. Just not journal articles. Such an approach would side-step the peer-review process, and we would quickly spiral in a race to the bottom with lots of garbage research plastered all over many university sites.

Faculty know the difference in quality between a colleague who publishes 10 articles in the low-hanging fruit trees and one who publishes 3 articles in top-tier journals over the same time frame. Such evaluations carry weight in who we decide to work with as well as who we decide to promote or award tenure.

The break could come when inexpensive/free OpenAccess publishing sites take hold of themselves with a sincere vision to publish quality research that holds to higher standards that are found in their competitors, the higher impact/higher cost journals.

Or when the members of the near-monopoly publishing boards have an epiphany to their current practices.



Others have already noted many of the problems with academic publishing (problems that aren’t limited to the sciences).

I’ll add just two to the list:

  1. Peer reviewers generally aren’t paid, nor are authors. So while of course there are real costs for publishers, they also benefit from a lot of labor they don’t pay for.
  2. Authors are typically asked to sign away the rights to their work as a condition for publication. A negotiated license would be better.

The issues raised in this thread are precisely why, in some of the circles I run in, people started to talk about “academic samizdat” several years ago.

On a practical note in response to @OogieM’s post: it may also be worth checking to see what your local public library is able to access via inter-library loan.

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BTDT and zero help. In my county interlibrary loans mean paying to ship paper books or journals from wherever they can find them. There is no such thing as a free interlibrary loan unless the journal or book is in one of the 3 branches of our county library.

If it’s of any help, the 2 sources where most of the research papers I cannot get access to are Cambridge Core and Nature.

For example here is a paper I want to read:
scanning Welsh Mountain Rams
$35 to get a copy!

In some cases the authors of the papers I want to read are dead or at least I can’t locate them anywhere.

Very good point. For the Cambridge Core stuff I verified that the university where I got my BS is listed as an institution with access. I’m trying to find out if an alumni email with a .edu from that university will be enough to get me access. I can get that email addy by jumping through a few hoops which I will start today. The one where I got my MS is not listed and does not have access.

First of all, great discussion.

@OogieM, what do you mean that SciHub is “more than a way to avoid paying?” Just curious.

There was an article in the Economist years ago describing how this web site is democratizing science. Those who cannot afford to get behind the pay wall, either independent academics, those at smaller universities, or those in countries where this isn’t possible, now have access to knowledge. The paywall limits knowledge to the rich.

I understand that publishers want to get paid, too, but $2000 for a paper is nuts. This then leads to the predatory journals that will publish anything. I highly recommend reading this one. Just brilliant.

Even PLOS ONE, who I think is trying to do the right thing and operates at a loss, charges the authors (or their institutions) a processing fee of $1,745.

I don’t know what IANAMBA means (I first read that as a Groot-like “I AM BANANA”) but universities self-publishing their work would be amazing. They may be able to coordinate the peer review process. The “cost of publishing” no longer includes paper, ink and shipping. Few people want the stacks of journals around their office anymore. The peer review process is built on volunteers (again free) at the behest of the publishers (who charge $$).

Another great idea. I suspect this doesn’t take off because we need the centralized hub to get articles in front of eyes. However with Twitter and search engines like Google Scholar, I wonder if the reliance on that hub can decrease.

edit: removed a screen shot of a figure from the article referenced above because it contains vulgarity that may offend some. The vulgarity demonstrates the absurdity of the fact that you can publish anything if you’re willing to pay.

Ugh, that’s frustrating.

I hope things work out for you with Cambridge Core. My current institution doesn’t have access. My graduate institution does, but under their licensing agreement an alumni email address isn’t sufficient to gain access (I just tried). Sigh.

It’s on sci-hub.

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SciHub is far too close to the dark web, phishing and hacking exploits for me to ever even go to that website in any of its forms or via usually temporary IP addresses (they’ve been banned from having a domain name in many countries) unless I have a cutout on a machine that is totally disposable and use a different interent connection totally unaffiliated with any where I do normal work. Getting said data off the sacrificial machine and into a work machine is problematic. I don’t have the tools necessary to verify to my satisfaction that I would not be importing back doors, spyware and other similar items from any papers I would download via that method.

I would hope that academic publishing would go the way of streaming music. We started out with CD’s and then paid-for MP3’s, but then Napster blew up that whole model. Spotify made Napster inconvenient. it’s just easier to pay a streaming service a monthly fee to get what you need.

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If you’re in the US, have you tried contacting the Central library at your land-grant or state university? Many of them have services for the general public.

Interestingly, for a Russell Group University with a vet school, we don’t have access to that paper either. Either that or they’re clever enough not to let me access it!