Have you ever tried to access an article and hit a paywall? Whether it’s the local newspaper (oops — sorry Daily News!), a medical journal, or a recipe from Better Homes and Gardens, paywalls are always frustrating.
Paywalls are especially frustrating when the article is reporting on publicly funded research. Most research is funded by the government, institutions of higher education, or through nonprofits. Researchers who receive this funding conduct their work and write articles to share their findings. These articles are then sent out to other researchers to be validated in the peer review process (these reviewers are also not compensated). If approved by the research community, the article is printed in a journal. Importantly, researchers are not paid by the journal’s publisher.
The publishers then sell the journals back to researchers, often through university libraries, at exorbitant prices. This system results in the public (you and me!) paying for research to be conducted, paying for the results to be written up and then paying to learn about the results. If you’re not associated with a subscribing institution or library, you may have no way to access this publicly funded research. Quite obviously, this is not an ideal system for anyone but the publisher.
Libraries are on the forefront of making research and scholarship more accessible to everyone, but there are many obstacles. First, publishers like to make money, and the academic publishing industry is extraordinarily lucrative. In 2010, Elsevier, one of the largest scientific publishers, reported a 36-percent profit margin, which was higher than Amazon, Apple, or Google that year.
Second, universities use the prestige of the journals that faculty publish in to make decisions about tenure and promotion. This means that researchers are rewarded for publishing in well-established, often expensive journals — journals that are only available to subscribe to from a single publisher. In a publish or perish world, prestige can be more valuable than public access. Third, the inertia of “this is how things have always been done” makes it difficult to chart a different path forward.
Although challenging, academic libraries are taking steps to change the scholarly publishing landscape. One way we’re doing this is by encouraging and assisting authors to publish articles in open access journals and providing support and infrastructure for open access publishing efforts. Open access, as defined by the advocacy organization SPARC, is “the free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open access ensures that anyone can access and use these results — to turn ideas into industries and breakthroughs into better lives.” Open access gives the public the ability to read and use the research that they have supported and funded.
Naturally, publishing an open access journal still has costs, even if the goal of these efforts isn’t profit. There are many different economic models for supporting these journals, and academic libraries have been on the forefront of exploring innovative ways to increase access while still ensuring high quality, peer-reviewed content. Many journals are now freely available online because of these open access efforts. You can look at a list of these journals on the Directory of Open Access Journals website.
What can you do about the problematic economic model of scholarly publishing? If you are a scholar or researcher, think about trying to publish your work in an open access journal or with a Creative Commons License. Legislation and government support are also vital to making change happen, so consider contacting your congressperson to support public access to publicly funded research. The academic publishing industry is broken, and these are only the first few steps towards finding solutions, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.
Martinez is a science librarian at the University of Idaho.