Frustrated with Paywalls for Scientific Papers-Rant

Now that IS odd. I would have thought that any UK university would have access for sure!

I haven’t heard back from them. I contacted alumni services first.

I recommend contacting the library directly. Things sometimes get lost in translation going from one campus organization to another.

Good point. I’ve now been in contct with someone in the research portion of the library. Sadly no, alumni are not allowed access to library materials online. If I was over there (they are several hundred miles and at least 3 major mountain passes away from me) I could come in to the library and acces the materials there as a “community login” but not from over here.

This is directed at you @JohnAtl.

I would merely like to point out that the University of California – albeit its desire to have the paywalls done away – still charges quite a bit of money from independent/foreign researchers for accessing its database of Ancient Greek texts (not even something that could have copyrights of, since the authors, trust me on this one, have been dead for a while now). Through history people have been transcribing these for no money, but, apparently, they can’t do away with the need for your US$170 every year.

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@OogieM, this, I think, is very far from the truth. You can access everything through telegram bots and never enter any website. This is not some random site by evil hackers. It was made by actual people with an actual need to access research material.


Frankly, access to scholarly research is sadly restricted and can be very costly. While my institution does have subscriptions to many journals, there is substantial cost associated with those subscriptions which can make them hard to maintain / justify, not to mention the cumbersome process of actually getting access and downloading the materials which is far from easy.

Reviewers for scientific journals provide an unpaid service to for-profit publishers simply for the associated fame (but not fortune).

I totally understand that the publisher has overhead to cover as well, so it’s not as simply as it sounds to just make everything “free,” but one also has to wonder why research that is supported by public research grant money (presumptively stemming at least in large part from tax dollars) it not then publicly available to said taxpayers.

Unfortunately, having each institution publish it’s own work on it’s own website is also problematic as the peer review process, however flawed it may be, still serves a useful function of at least doing something to try to vet the research and reporting process. I don’t think we would benefit from making the availability of published research a Wild West with every institution posting findings that may well be more self interest than scientific advance.

I wish I could offer solutions, but I think this is too complex a problem for any easy solutions I might come up with.

Still, it is highly frustrating when I come up against a paywall that blocks me from an article that might benefit me, or more directly, my patients’ care.

Is there a model where institutions can self-publish after peer-review? Ideally the reviewers would not be at that institution. Perhaps there are either inter institutional agreements or we rely on the good will of volunteers as we currently do.

Unfortunately, there is no incentive for people to change the current system. Those who feel the pain have the quietest voice.

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The challenge I’m seeing is that the market is tiny, relatively speaking. People who want access to academic papers are a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of those who want music. And those who want access to any particular collection of academic papers is smaller yet.

The system is broken, but I think there’d have to be almost a top-to-bottom overhaul of higher education (and a lot of salary reductions / job losses) to implement any significant fixes.

The issues on the publishing side are independent of the issues in higher ed. The former will not change by an overhaul of the administrative structures in higher ed.


I was of the impression that promotion / tenure decisions had quite a bit to do with the fact that professors get published, and get published in particular (well-respected) journals. Would that still be the case if there wasn’t a significant revenue back-end keeping the journals in business?

And that frequently, the research that they do to get published winds up being given to the journal, and the college has to license it back from the journal.

If that’s the case (and I’m open to correction - the person I talked to was an academic, but they may have been wrong or I may have misunderstood) it would seem that the tenure / promotion system is very tightly bound to the academic publishing industry.

Is that not the case?

@oldblueday: Sure, I think you could conceive of such a structure, but actually building it would be difficult, I think.

Right now, a big part of the draw to get people to serve as reviewers for scientific journals is a combination of professional responsibility and prestige. If that process feel to individual institutions, I think it would be more difficult. For example, I suppose Harvard University might not suffer from inability to find reviewers, but the same is unlikely to be true for the “University of Small Town in Northern Alaska.”

Scientific publishing is not a level playing field, because a paper submitted from Harvard is going to have a better shot at being published than a paper from our University of Small Town, but I think it’s still closer to level than having each research center trying to create its own peer review process.

I suppose you could envision a system in which a pool of peer reviewers in a given field agree to review all papers submitted to a central authority of some sort, but the actual publication then occurs on their respective institutional websites, but that might not differ all that much from having a consortium that agrees to function as a scientific journal but distribute the content on the web for free. Still, how to get institutions to join said consortium? If there is a membership fee, why would they also review and publish papers from non members who aren’t paying to support the process?

Then there is the issue of finding things. Right now, there are perhaps 6-10 major journals in my field that I try to stay current in, and a few others that I read less rigorously. At least every week I get either a mailed copy of the journal (for those that I pay to subscribe to) or an emailed table of contents (for those that I don’t) and I can scan the TOC for articles of interest to read. How would that work if every paper were published on it’s author’s institution’s website? Now we we need some sort of aggregation service - which is, in a way, what the journals are in the first place.

Then we need to vet the quality of the data. How do I know if an article on Harvard’s website is a true peer reviewed paper, or not? Who ensures the honesty of self-reporting of peer review? Who serves as editor? Now, the editor and editorial board of a given scientific journal are presumably accomplished and recognized individuals in the field, but not every institution can bring that expertise to bear locally.

I think it is an intriguing idea to rethink the scientific publishing machinery in a way that makes publications generally accessible and the process more “open source” but it is not an easy problem to solve and will require enough buy-in for a given field that I think it will be hard to establish, just as changing any well-entrenched system can be very difficult.

@webwalrus: You are correct as far as many academic pursuits are concerned. Many factors can go in to promotion and awarding of tenure, and they certainly include volume of publications and the prestige of the journal in which they are published. There are of course other factors, depending on the institution, which can include books published, evaluations from students taught, degrees awarded to degree candidates (BS, MS, PHD) under one’s direction, membership / participation on institutional committees, and so forth.

The old motto was “publish or perish.” In fact, there has often been criticism of the volume of “research” published just to pad CV’s to support promotion without true scientific value.

I don’t really suspect the profit margin of the journals is a contributing factor to this in the sense that I don’t suspect academic institutions look to publication as a financial incentive towards promotion, but more that it serves as a benchmark for one’s accomplishment in their field. Sadly, it is a poor benchmark as there is often nepotism, bias, and outright theft of credit in the world of scientific publishing as well. Everything suffers when imperfect humans get involved!

Or “contributed to”, which is helped along by academic publishers cranking out new textbooks to replace old ones that aren’t necessarily outdated, but already exist in the world so they’re not profitable anymore. And the professors who are incentivized to be published are thus (albeit indirectly) incentivized to suggest the new textbooks.

My original comment above had to do with the idea of leveling things to the point where academic research was super-inexpensive and affordable (i.e. “like Spotify”).

For that much money to sucked out of the academic journal companies, things would have to change a lot. And the fact that the promotional benchmarks are tied to the publication of works which, as you note, sometimes lacks “true scientific value” seems to me to be part of the problem.

The universities require the professors to publish, which requires opportunities to publish (and provides them incentive to require their published works as class texts), which incentivizes the journals and academic publishing houses to create opportunities, which thus have a captive and profitable market, which is supported by the professors who they publish because the universities require the professors to publish…

It’s cyclical.

I’m not against profit. But I feel that much of the profit in this particular system is more due to perverse incentives rather than value creation.

I agree 100%. This is a Big Problem. Are there any groups in academia seriously working on it?


You are quite correct as far as faculty publishing “textbooks” and then requiring their students to purchase them, which of course gets as the cost of textbooks in the first place. I recall my daughter’s college calculus course in which the textbook was essentially an unbound stack of papers comprising a textbook written by the course’s head faculty. Sadly, the text was not very understandable, but fortunately I still had my old text from my college course to help her out.

The cost of textbooks has skyrocketed; I personally have bought texts in the past few years in my field that are over $400 each!

Again I understand there is a huge amount of labor involved in writing textbooks (I know from firsthand written book chapters), editing, proofreading, and publishing (even electronically), so I cannot really say that the books are truly overpriced when you look at the effort involved, but when a single semester in college can generate 1000 to 2000 in textbook costs we have to wonder if the price of learning is prohibitive for many students.

I am unaware of any groups working on a new model for scientific publishing, but I doubt I am in a position whereI would know anyway. I’d be happy to help with such a movement, but I doubt there is enough momentum in this area right now for it to really go anywhere. I know there are some isolated attempts to bring scientific publications “to the masses” but I think they are small efforts in circumscribed fields.

The only costs to a researcher to publish his/her work are the costs associated with doing the research studies or creative works in the first place and the costs associated with writing up the research results or creative achievements to the standards of the journal where the author desires the work to be published.

If any bean-counting is done about such things, a typical PTAC (promotion and tenure award committee) for faculty in the hard sciences and engineering departments in the US generally first assesses a) how many publications have been accepted and b) what are the impact factors for the journals where the works were published. A PTAC review absolutely does not assess whether the faculty member paid fees to the publisher (*and if it does, it has failed on integrity).

The rant is about the high costs demanded by publishers for anyone outside of limited circles to access the information once it is published. Such back end costs are entirely independent of those associated with the front end efforts.

Again, the notion that the tenure and promotion structure in the US university systems should be under review is acceptable. Absolutely not however for the reasons that you are suggesting. And certainly not with entertaining the commensurate equivalent thought that “heads should roll in academia” before any changes can be expected in the fee structures enforced by publishers.


I think I understand where you’re coming from.

An example I was given by a professor a ways back was that in a particular case, research was being done by an institution. As part of “getting published”, the professor had to grant rights to the research to a journal. Which meant that in order to distribute that research, the professor / university had to effectively license it back from the publisher.

The impression I was given was that this is common, not a one-off sort of thing. Which actually ties back to @OogieM’s original note:

If that’s true - that the professor / university can’t distribute the research that they did because of a publisher arrangement - the promotions requirement that incentivized the granting of rights to the publisher would seem to be a rather large part of the problem…wouldn’t it?

I’ve never said that “heads should roll” in academia. I did say that a top-to-bottom overhaul of the system to address the problem would almost inherently involve a lot of salary reductions / job losses. If nothing else, just stemming the tide of zero-value research and publication would result in a massive industry shrinkage.

That is all too often true — faculty authors sign away their copyright as part of the publication process. There’s been pushback against that, so there are probably instances now in which it’s possible to grant the publisher a license rather than transfer copyright.

But either way, what the author can do with their work will be limited by the legal agreement they enter into with the publisher. Sometimes the author can post a pre-print version on their own website or in their institution’s digital repository (if the institution has one). Sometimes they can post the final version, with or without an embargo.

The only cases I’m aware of in which authors (or their institutions, more likely) would pay to publish is when they want the published work to be open access. Some publishers will accept a fee in exchange for making the article available to everyone free of charge.

The faculty and university can freely distribute notices that the research is published. The faculty and university can freely distribute general information about the research, even to the point of openly publishing summaries about the work that do not in verbatim reproduce the publication in any way.

It is the same right that someone has to offer their interpretation of a work without violating copyright. It is just that, the work is now their own work but that representation of it is owned by someone else.

Your reading here is too tight. Just because the publisher owns the copyright to one particular expression of the research or creative work absolutely does not mean that the publisher owns the right to negate any and all other variations that should subsequently express that research or creative work.

The end statement “job losses” can be interpreted to mean the equivalent of the former statement. The salary reductions and job losses will be at the lower tiers as yet more administrators are hired to manage the business requirements.


I think we’re defining terms differently. You seem to be using “academia” to refer to the whole thing, including universities, publishing houses, etc. I was considering “academia” to be the schools themselves, and “academic publishing” to describe the other group where most of the shrinkage would work.

I think both definitions are potentially valid, but it makes sense that we’re talking past each other if we’re using the same term different ways. :slight_smile: