Scientific Journals and The Great Paywall

in StemSociallast year

Doing scientific research can be a challenging endeavour. While the successful results of research typically makes it to the general public, many attempts end up on a dead end road. Typically with significant amounts of time "wasted" on something the didn't work out in the end.

Once nice results are obtained, the next stressful journey of communicating the work to the scientific community. Yes, I'm talking about journal publication. For those who were involved in a publication process know how stressful, time consuming and cumbersome it can be.

Image source:

For one, writing up your research in a clear and scientifically sound manner, getting a hand on the often complex submission process, mailing back and forth with co-authors, Journal editors, and of course the long waiting period before receiving back review comments.

In short, this whole process is something that requires hard work and persistence. Hence, jumping through the publication hoop successfully and seeing your publication on the Journal's website is a great achievement as a researcher. It's a testament to all your efforts that one wants to share with everyone in your field of research.

More than often, however, sharing your work is not a straight forward procedure. For one, many well established and respected Journals, have created paywalls on their websites. Simply put, in order to get an article one has to pay. Paying 20 to 30 Euros to get your hands on a digital version is no exception.

While for many year's I kind of accepted these paywalls as a given. I always assumed the hard work of Journals lies in the hands of the Journals themselves. Fair enough for them to charge some money right? Besides that, the universities I worked at typically had full access to these Journals anyways.

The university at which I currently work, however, does not get me the easy Journal access I enjoyed in the past. And that made me think: why is the hard work of researchers payed (in most cases) by public money not openly available to the public that fronted this money?

The Cost of Knowledge

It turns out I'm not alone in this! In fact there are movements that advocate the boycott of certain publishers to demand lower prices. The Cost of Knowledge initiative for example has their focus on Elsevier, a Dutch-based publisher with an annual revenue of £2.64 billion in 2019.

The Pirate Bay for Science

And then there's the piracy route. Over the years many initiatives arose with the aim of sharing scientific work for free through specialised online search engines with questionable legality. The Pirate Bay for science, sort to say.

Source: screenshot of Hollywood movie Captain Phillips

A well known website in this category is SciHub, an initiative by Kazakhstani Alexandra Elbakyan. This website even comes with a Telegram bot that can be used to find scientific papers very easily.

A legal alternative

Another less questionable but sub-ideal option is provided by Through this online platform, scientific researcher can (if Journals allow) upload preprints of their works. The downside to this infrastructure, of course, is the lack of peer reviewing. While the works provided via Arxiv are mostly preprints, they cannot be trusted with the same ease as the actual published works. Simply because peer review can not be assumed.

Although the world of scientific publishing is a misty ocean full of ships with conflicting interests (this article doesn't even cover just the smallest tip of the iceberg), the tools above allow you sail through.

What do you do to get the latest ins and outs in your field of research? Do you sail the corvette or the pirate ship?

 last year (edited)

I would like to share the particle physics example on this topic (that is a very important one). I think my field has one of the best practice on that matter.

First, all particle physics preprints are on the arxiv. This is a general rule in the field, and this holds for at least 1.5 decade (it was already the case when I started my PhD years ago). The papers are then submitted to journals from the arxiv directly (the arxiv number is sometimes even mandatory for the submission to proceed). This guarantees that all texts are available for free, by anyone.

In addition, all our most important journals are open access thanks to the SCOAP3 initiative. To make it short, CERN in particular an other big institutions pay the journals a fee to make all particle physics article free and open. That's not ideal, but this is at least good for making science freely available to the general audience.

And finally, we have the scipost initiative, an online journal by physicists and for physicists, completely open, transparent and free. It is somehow the arxiv equiped with a publicly available referral system. Referee reports and associated replies are all public (which also changes things in the better way) .

I have personally not published that many papers in there yet, as some universities / institutions do not recognise scipost as a real journal (and this is problematic when younger ones are involved in a paper). However, things are slowly changing. I am hence now writing two papers, with young collaborators, that should end to be submitted to scipost within a month or two.

[upvoted for visibility]

That all sounds really good! Thinks are slowly tipping into a better direction, and that make me happy.

Now I'm interested in your opinion on something I've been thinking about recently. And that is a token which can be used within the whole journal publication ecosystem. Not sure if it would work at all, but imagine authors publishers editors and reviewers earn the token weighted differently based on their role and the IF of the respective journal. Readers who want to download a paper can use the token to pay for the paper. Each scientist receives a starting budget from whatever funds them. Using some block chain technology in the background can directly be used for citation tracking too.

Perhaps I'm thinking too simple, but somehow this sounded interesting to me :-)

What you propose already exists somehow. Elsevier provide free access to their catalogue to reviewers during a few months for each review you write under the form of a token, and JHEP, JCAP and JINST (3 journals of my field) pay a small referral fee (30 EUR per review).

Starting it from scratch would require scientists' endorsement, so that they are willing to write review and recognise the new journal as something relevant. I don't see how to achieve this easily (it is not even fully the case for scipost although this is a very serious project supported by institutions like CERN). I don't say that your idea is a bad one, but just that I don't see how to implement this in practice so that it works.

My only concern is that I would prefer to have something fully open access. For instance, I have stopped writing paper and reviews for non-open access journals. I refuse to endorse them. We live in the 21st century, an era of open access, open source, etc.

Finally, as a side note, citation tracking is probably unnecessary thanks to the arxiv. Please check what InspireHEP does for high energy physics.

The things you mention I also thought about as major problems for such a system. It would make the whole system potentially more democratic though.

Coincidentally, yesterday a came across this video addressing the issue in a sarcastic way:

It's academic, baby... I liked this video (that I didn't know). They point out the very good reason for which I will never submit anything to Nature.

I couldn't imagine it could be that hard to Publish something you worked hard for. Interesting topic and something new for me.


Thank you! Yes it can be challenging and sometimes even confronting :-)

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A publication process like this sounds quite long - I only get to see a little of it from university, but it must be a lot of work... but very interesting!

Yeah, it can be quite an ordeal. But once done, it's quite nice to have on your resume :-)

Thanks for dropping by!


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The university at which I currently work, however, does not get me the easy Journal access I enjoyed in the past

Perhaps, it is only one university in the entire Nigeria that has access to one or two internationally acclaimed publisher in the like of Nature, Springer, Elsevier, etc.

That means many Africa-based researchers are left with no option than to sail the pirate ship. Where would they get the money to buy PDF version of an article for 20 Euro? It is more than probable that 80 % or more of Africa-based researchers fund their research work with their personal money. I am not speculating even though my statistic may not be accurate. I know from whence I write.

It is a great disservice for few people to feed fat on the effort of others in the name of giving credibility to their work.

Anyway, they shouldn't be blamed. The whole academic structure is resting on a faulty premise of publish or perish that make the system vulnerable to renown publishers.

Yeah it’s really a strange system jn many ways. I was really just touching the tip of the iceberg here. This could start a very big discussion on many aspects of academic research and the money and power involved 🙈

Thanks for sharing your story, it’s appreciated! :-)

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