The Whys of Academic Paywalls

Let's say you get an obscure and alarming disease. Let's not make this scenario too scary. Let's say that this disease turns your big toe green and emits an embarrassing odor. What's the first thing that many of  us would do? We would google "alarming stinky green  foot disease." You might find a wikipedia page and a few newspaper articles on the green foot disease, but you would not be able to read any academic research on the topic, because you don't have a university ID. 

Why can't you read academic research? Why can't you read academic research that was conducted at public universities, which is funded by YOUR tax dollars? Let me tell you….

Not only is the research is hidden from the likes of you and me who don't have an academic ID card anymore, but also academics have to pay to read their own research. Yes, academics write research, receive no profits, and then have to pay to read it again. Oh, the insanity. 

UPDATE: Thanks so much to all my off-the-record friends who helped me with this article. And thanks to the love around the blogosphere. Yesterday, my article shot to the top of the Atlanic's Most Popular list. I was thrilled. 

More from Scott Lemieux, Boing Boing, and reddit

Henry Farrell calls on all academics to boycott Elsevier. 

UPDATE2: While the response to this essay was overwhelmingly popular, a couple of people have criticized it. The critics say that JSTOR is one of the good guys and I shouldn't be calling for their dismissal. The point is that we don't need ANY academic databases anymore. They cost us a lot of money. I didn't have the time to run down the exact amounts, but think hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, if not more, at the larger universities. If all journals just put their issues online, continued their usual peer review process, skipped printing the hard copy versions, then we would save money AND increase access. There's really no downside. 

40 thoughts on “The Whys of Academic Paywalls

  1. Fabulous Laura. This issue happens to be one of my pets.
    In addition to stubborn tradition, in the sciences its the paid lobby to support one of the last profitable pieces of the old-style, paper, publishing industry. They have a bill in congress, too, HR3699, trying to roll back the small steps forward that the government has made on requiring access for grant-funded research. The NIH requirement that grant-funded articles be placed in the pubmed data base within 1 year of publication. The law would forbid the government from requiring that articles be placed into some form of open access.
    In science the clear model to go to is author pay models, which seem sustainable at the 2000-5000 dollar/paper level (and, in the case of science, the money usually comes from the same sources — NIH paying through overhead to libraries, or directly through grants). I think some more thought is needed for research that isn’t grants funded, but there needs to be a method that doesn’t allow private enterprises to copyright work that’s produced by public/not-for-profit employees.

  2. Hey! Fridays are busy here. :)
    It was a good article, and not so much controversial as an “oh yeah, I never thought of that, but she’s right!” moment.
    Also, Chris gets the “Chris, FTW!” accolade tonight. Sorry, MH.

  3. Thanks! So, I found out lots of stuff that didn’t get into the story, because of time. Hard to find people who will go on the record about this stuff. Like the publishers are the real bad guys in this story. Companies like Elsevier and Sage. They are racking up HUGE profits from academic journals by selling their work back to the JSTOR and other databases. Think 100,000 for one year from one journal. Also, university libraries are spending hundreds of thousands on buying their articles back.
    I find it horrific that that academics have let this system go on for so long. I also find it incredibly strange why academics don’t’ want their work distributed with open access and online. Why? Ultimately, academics are very conservative creatures in their habits.

  4. “I also find it incredibly strange why academics don’t’ want their work distributed with open access and online. Why? Ultimately, academics are very conservative creatures in their habits.”
    What’s stopping people from posting their articles on their very own web sites? My husband has dozens of articles on his website (including drafts), plus a blog for short ideas or for getting feedback on arguments he’s still working the kinks out of. I see that one of his junior colleagues has a lot of articles online, too, but that older colleagues seem less likely to do so.

  5. BRAVA!! 8 comments there so far. I didn’t read them all, but they don’t seem to be nasty, so I guess you needn’t have worried (well, it could still happen).
    Amy P raised an EXCELLENT point — why don’t people make their own research available? The only reason why I haven’t done so yet (eventually I want to make most of the data in my dissertation available in an easy to access website) is that I want to have a “firmer” affiliation before I do that. I should just go ahead and do it, though.
    What you denounce here/there is OUTRAGEOUS. I wish the publishers would come out and try to explain their reasons. Do keep us posted of reactions and whether there are any weighty responses worth looking at.
    Oh, and I don’t think I agree with Gina, particularly on the excuse that this stuff shouldn’t be available because people wouldn’t know how to interpret it.
    Maybe she’s partly right that just people like you & me (who have the high degree in the first place) seek this kind of info (I look up medical journal articles whenever my sons get sick), but it’s outrageous that journalists don’t have access to this.
    Another thing to add to your argument is that in order for scientific breakthroughs to make in the media the article needs to appear in Science magazine or another higher circulation one — sometimes YEARS after the findings came o the light in the first place. It’s most certainly a HUGE disservice to the public that this takes place.
    BRAVA again!! and keep on writing about this as much as you can, now that you’ve had the time to get more information. I liked that the Scholastica comment added to the discussion. I just clicked on the website, “Academic Publishing Done the Right Way” … hmmm… do you know them? What side are they in? (I need to go to bed, no time to go find out just now).

  6. Entire courses are being taught ont his issue in Info/Lib Science programs. It’s not just the costs of individual journals — it’s that the publishers bundle subscriptions at even higher costs and take away librarians’ ability to make collection choices that match their ever-shrinking budgets to their user needs.
    Professors won’t put their work in open-access journals because peer-reviewed research is required for tenure, promotion, and hiring. There are campaigns afoot to change those standards, along with the drive to revise tenure altogether, but it’s hard to change any status quo.
    There are also real questions about identifying relevant and authoritative information in an open-access world. They are definitely not insurmountable problems but they will require thoughtful work, and professors are already putting in 60-80 hour weeks just doing the research in the first place. It’s hard (but certainly not impossible) to mount a revolution when administrators are pushing the adjunct “solution,” you’ve not had a pay raise since 2007, and the legislature is promising another 15% funding cut in June.

  7. Congrats on the article, btw. I should have led with that.
    I’m surprised to read that editors get release time. Spouse is an asst editor and gets nothing from his university for that. He does get a stipend from the journal itself but with 40-50 articles crossing his desk, needing to be reviewed for desk rejection, assigned to referees, and then shepherded through that process, it works out to less than minimum wage. Spouse does the work because it’s considered uncollegial for people at his level not to do this work, and because it does give him access to all the urgent research in his field.
    At the practical level, our state’s public libraries offer free access to gale and ebsco databases for all card holders. Does NJ not have a similar program?

  8. There is no need to go to open access journals and skip the peer review step. Simply put the existing journals with their system of reviews on the web as is. It’s very easy to set up a website and upload the articles for anyone to read. Very easy. And cheap. I upload articles onto this FREE blog all the time. It would universities millions in database subscription fees.

  9. A lot of us academics don’t agree with academic paywalls either. Pick ‘google scholar’ and see if there’s a free version of the article elsewhere on the web. Many of us post our work on academia.edu so that others can read it for free.

  10. Yes. But you are not allowed to post .pdfs of your articles that have been published in academic journals. It violates the copyright laws. Again, take the publishers out of the picture and you can do that.
    Let me be perfectly clear, the academics are not the bad guys here. They are clueless pawns in a mega-million dollar industry.

  11. Totally agree with Jody on this – it’s all about tenure and promotion. To get it, you need to publish in big journals. Big journals are behind pay walls. I could give a crap where my stuff appears absent that incentive, but with it, I have to play the game. Total collective action problem.

  12. But the big journals could stop using paywalls. It is not benefitting them in the least. If the big journals continued to keep doing everything that they do right now, except for going with the print version of their journal, then we could keep the old journals AND keep the profits in academia AND let anyone read them.

  13. Yes, Laura, but what’s the incentive for publishers who make millions charging for subscriptions right now (and, admittedly, doing the non-negligible work of tagging them with metadata, maintaining servers,etc) to start giving away their products for free? There’s a serious collective-action problem, and with the move in Cingress to reverse the gains we’ve made re:access, I am hard-pressed to see who can force Elsevier in particular to change their evil, exploitative ways.
    There are concrete things that academics can do within the current system, but most don’t even read the contracts they sign after an article is accepted for publication.

  14. I’m repeating myself, but I think that people are having trouble understanding this.
    Publishers are taking the finished product and printing it up and distributing it and then selling off the rights for big profits. Unlike regular publishing, they aren’t paying the writer or the editor. There is absolutely no reason to have a print version of a journal. Even a million years ago when I did my dissertation, I had stopped reading print versions of journals. Nobody reads them. We all do keyword searches for the topics or authors that we’re looking for.

  15. We just need a couple of major academic journals to decide to only publish their work on a website, instead of having a print version. Maybe just one to make that courageous step, and the rest will follow.

  16. I strongly suspect that the publishers own the journals, including titles, trademarks, etc. So the Journal of Learned Learnedness (est’d 1757 by the Learned Society), which is *the* journal in the Learned field, is owned lock stock and barrel by Elsevier. The Learned Society may not even be able to start a new journal, depending on their contract with the publisher.

  17. “There is absolutely no reason to have a print version of a journal. Even a million years ago when I did my dissertation, I had stopped reading print versions of journals. Nobody reads them.”
    Not quite correct. A family member, long-tenured in the sciences, like all the other old professors in the sciences used to go over to the library (same building) and thumb through articles (sometimes keywords and titles don’t alert you to the content, it was quicker to turn a page then hit two back links and load up a new article, repeat repeat).
    Then for budget reasons, first the print journals went away and then the library in the building did.
    He thinks the research they do has suffered from this sort of blinkering. Paper does have an advantage (until programming would catch up, and as a former programmer: HA! to that.)
    I would think also, as I did when I worked in a university library, and I’ve mentioned this to a former colleague who now is a subject librarian, that the nice thing about print journals is that you’re guaranteed to have access to the journal–albeit inconvenient–as long as you can afford storage and retrieval. The contracts for online access–and not JSTOR but the direct ones–often build in cost increases, capped at a percentage, year to year. And once you can’t afford the subscription cost for that year, all the electronic years you had previously paid for go away. Paper is also security.
    Commercial publishing is still bunk.

  18. But we can’t keep this bad system going just for the one old guy who likes to read the print version of a journal. It costs too much in terms of the loss of information for the public at large, as well as the large costs to the university. Do you know how much a large state university pays for subscriptions to their databases? Yeah, neither do I since they have buried that information. Just for kicks, I’ll run down that info next week. The number is probably in the hundreds of thousands per year. You think that sports suck up a lot of money? Think about the money spent on academic databases.

  19. Great article, Laura, and thanks for writing on this. My 1st year Academic Writing students are (rightly) baffled each term by the arcane conventions of writing and publishing that we continue to use and the closed system in which we work. For increasing numbers of us off the tenure track, research and publishing are activities undertaken on our own time–as a weird kind of volunteer work–and it would be easier to keep up this work if I felt like it had broader social benefits and a reading public beyond a handful of grad students.
    Most university libraries have provided some form of community access, including to people who want to read academic journals on site (and who can then photocopy them for research or personal use). What will be our online equivalent for this form of access with so much work behind a paywall? I cram all my research into my eight teaching months because during the four months that I lose my faculty status each year I also lose my library card and online access privileges…part of the licensing agreement the university signed.

  20. “Do you know how much a large state university pays for subscriptions to their databases? Yeah, neither do I since they have buried that information.”
    I have a sense, yes, because I worked at a university library. I don’t have the aggregate (because I don’t remember the number of subscriptions–and I just worked on access to unified search for the databases, not acquisitions or budget), but I’ve seen the Elsevier bill. The question is whether the librarians could release that info. It’s certainly there and not destroyed.
    Until payment is for the content in perpetua as opposed to yearly access permission, print is still more secure in terms of guaranteeing access to material. It doesn’t change your utopian call to action, I’ll admit. But I’m not willing to say “screw the print runs” until security of access to information over years is guaranteed.

  21. Also: hundreds of thousands? If you’re looking at all db subscriptions….
    You’re rating it far too cheaply for a R1 school.

  22. O, Laura, you’re the greatest. Congratulations. Certainly I would rather read your stuff than most of what The Atlantic publishes.
    I suspect that this particular problem is rather readily soluble, however. Yale has free JSTOR access for alumni. Does Chicago not have that? They should. I suspect that the number of people who want JSTOR access and who aren’t alumni of a prestigious institution is infinitesimal.
    And harking back to a discussion from a few days ago, I don’t give a lot of money to Yale, but JSTOR access means more to me than the football team. I would guess that Chicago (this is a joke) would find the same.

  23. Laura, They charge Hundreds of thousands for the digital subscriptions. They charge hundreds of thousands just to access the articles online. In a lot of cases, the print runs are tiny and fading fast — after all, every stage of the submission and review process happened electronically.
    The publishers own the journals. They own the intellectual property. They do add value via the overhead costs they bear, the metadata they add, the servers they maintain, etc. But it’s not hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of extra value, and only the major research universities and the government have the power to set the information free again.
    In the meantime, please do check with your local public library and your public schools. We have access to most of the major databases — including most magazines and newspapers (is the Atlantic still making its archives available for free? I forget whether they went behind a pay wall or not) — with our library card or a school-provided password. Public libraries know that lots of people want access to JSTOR, Gale, and Lexis-Nexus.

  24. “Yes. But you are not allowed to post .pdfs of your articles that have been published in academic journals. It violates the copyright laws. Again, take the publishers out of the picture and you can do that.”
    In my experience, most journals do allow you to post a .pdf of your article on your personal website and in a university repository.
    Congrats on the article!

  25. There’s another back door if you know exactly which article you want–you can ask an author for a copy and they will generally be more than happy to oblige.

  26. What are the implications of what Jody stated? (and she’s studying that stuff now): “The publishers own the journals. They own the intellectual property. They do add value via the overhead costs they bear, the metadata they add, the servers they maintain, etc. ”
    and what Doug had already suspected above: “I strongly suspect that the publishers own the journals, including titles, trademarks, etc.”
    If they own the rights, the intellectual property — am I reading this correctly Jody? — when signing the contract the writer is releasing his IP rights? In that case, the “back door” mentioned by Amy P just above would be a violation of copyright too — the writer of the article is probably happy to share, but may be doing so wrongly.
    outrageous, serious stuff here…

  27. y81 wrote: “I suspect that the number of people who want JSTOR access and who aren’t alumni of a prestigious institution is infinitesimal.”
    Really? I suspect, instead, that there are many, many bright and engaged folks out there (some of them who are not alumni of any institution, prestigious or not) who would love access to JSTOR, and would put it to good use. In fact, I’d bet that there are more such folks than there are interested graduates of prestigious institutions.
    (Enjoyed the original article, thanks for putting it out there!)

  28. As a research teacher in a magnet high school we require our students to read journal articles. If you have the name of the article you can find it online at least 50% of the time through Google Scholar, a Google search for pdfs, or in a preprint archive. Its nowhere near a perfect system but it is workable especially when combined with emailing the authors of other articles.

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