Why you can’t read scientific research

Caution: vitriol ahead.

I recently interviewed about fifty winemakers and growers in two countries, and surveyed a few hundred more, about information resources and what they do with them. They didn’t complain about scientific research being a bunch of unreadable scientific gobbledygook. But they did complain about research being unreadable – literally, unreadable – because they can’t access the darn articles.

If you want the guts of someone’s research – exactly what methods they used, the data before they’re sanitized into tidy conclusions – mega-publishing companies* ask you to pay US $30 or more to buy or even rent the full text of an academic article. Abstracts are usually free and give you a summary of the main idea. But abstracts are no help if you want details. If you’re trying to ascertain whether the research relates to your practical work, you probably want details.

Seriously, does anyone ever empty their metaphorical pocket money for a single-article access? Ever? You’re either fortunate enough to work for a university or company that publishers can blackmail into paying extortionist fees for “institutional access,” or you do without.

How did this happen? Scientific publishing started exactly 350 years ago in England and France when the research community became big enough that sending letters to each other wasn’t working any more. Then, (I’m quoting Lyman and Chodorow**),

University presses and disciplinary associations were founded to disseminate research in the original cycle of scholarly communication. The faculty produced the work to be published; non-profit publishers organized the distribution of knowledge; the university library bought the published work at an artificially high price, as a subsidy for learned societies; and the faculty used this literature as the foundation for further research and teaching.”

And then a lot of societies sold their journals to mega-publishers when they couldn’t support the infrastructure to move to digital. And then those mega-publishers could increase their prices because (I’m quoting Lariviere, Haustein, and Mongeon),

Unlike usual suppliers, authors provide their goods without financial compensation and consumers (i.e. readers) are isolated from the purchase. Because purchase and use are not directly linked, price fluctuations do not influence demand. Academic libraries, contributing 68% to 75% of journal publishing revenues [31], are atypical buyers because their purchases are mainly controlled by budgets. Regardless of their information needs, they have to manage with less as prices increase. Due to the publisher’s oligopoly, libraries are more or less helpless, for in scholarly publishing each product represents a unique value and cannot be replaced.”

As an academic, I’m hog-tied. I have to publish in good journals to get a good job, and then to keep it. Most of the best journals are owned by mega-publishers; the smaller, independent, often open-access ones are usually newer, smaller, and not as competitive or high-profile.

We all hate this state of affairs, but most of us are too afraid that we won’t get a job/make tenure/pay off our student loans if we don’t comply. So we comply. I’ve submitted or published six articles in the past two years. Three have been to independent open-access journals, three to mega-pubs. Avoiding the mega-publishers would have been the difference between a top-tier publication and one much further down the pile, not to mention getting feedback from great scholars whose names I recognize from the top journals. As a PhD student going on the job market next year there are only so many risks I’m willing to take. And I’m fortunate to work in a subfield where a few of my top-tier choices are open-access independents.

Academics don’t get paid for the journal articles they submit. We hand over our work for free, and then we review other peoples’ submissions for free, which means hours of reading and providing detailed feedback. This is part of the academic “job,” so we’re paid for it indirectly by our university salaries. Universities have to pay researchers, and universities have to pay incredibly high subscription fees for journal access. Universities get money from student tuition fees, taxpayer funds, and special bequests from rich people. If you’re a taxpayer or have ever paid for someone’s college education, you’ve paid for academic publishing. And the mega-publishers are still asking you to pay $30-40 to read single articles on the internet.

Publisher revenues have doubled since journals moved online. Printing a physical journal is expensive. Putting it online is much, much less expensive. Mega-publishers now turn profits on par with Pfizer and the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China. Scroll down to the discussions and conclusions of this open-access article on “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era” for a brief but excellent account of more of the details.

The best news is that this supreme state of idiocy is on unsteady ground.

As of this coming year, every United States federal government research organization has mandated that all articles published as a result of public funding must by law be made fully and freely available online. To everyone, whether you’re proprietor of a schmancy boutique winery in Napa or a young assistant winemaker at a small place in South Africa or Uruguay or Armenia or a random curious lady sitting in a living room in Northern Ireland. So there’s the good news. You’ll see fewer articles blocked by stupid paywalls, and if you’re an American taxpayer you’ll stop paying twice for some research.

What can you do to help bring down even more of those paywalls? Support the resistance. Keep finding ways to avoid paying publishers. Share. Contact researchers directly if you have questions about an article you can’t access: an email address is usually sitting next to the abstract, and most researchers are happy to talk about (and share) their work. And pat your friendly local academic on the back when they say they’ve published OA.

* Elsevier, SAGE, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, John Wiley

**I’m actually “through-quoting” here, which means that I’m using the same quote another article already used and that I didn’t actually read the original source. It’s considered bad academic practice because you don’t know what the original context was (and thus could be misunderstanding the original author), and because the source you’re actually reading could have made a mistake. But this is my blog, and you get the gist.