Editorial: Breaking the paywall between academic journals


For graduate and undergraduate students, academic research is essential to our education. Using peer-reviewed articles not only facilitates our understanding of the disciplines we study, but is often a mandatory part of our courses.

It’s easy for students to ignore the costs associated with accessing hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed documents. For universities, on the other hand, the bill is colossal. The academic research publishing company is to blame.

Ideally, researchers are paid a salary to conduct and write their research, usually through grants and their institutions. Then, research authors pay a fee to submit their work for peer review. In many cases, these peer reviewers are not paid for their work.

Then the research databases cash in by charging users a subscription fee to access the published material.

These databases exploit researchers, institutions and their users. This is not how it should be.

Assuming that researchers receive a salary for their work, they do not depend on publication costs for a living.

The researchers are not to blame. These publishing monoliths are the ones that build expensive pay walls around searcher content, even going so far as to charge authors a fee if they don’t want their work to be behind a pay wall.

These fees are cumulative for universities and individuals. On Elsevier, which is responsible for 18% of global research output, an item could cost nearly $ 30. A JSTOR individual research subscription – which always limits access and PDF downloads – costs over $ 200 per year. Some sites, like ProQuest, don’t even allow individuals to purchase subscriptions. This privilege is reserved for universities and research institutes.

There are also disparities between disciplines. For example, scientific journals are more often open access than journals in the humanities.

Subscriptions can run into the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, putting a strain on university library budgets. Since 1986, university library budgets have increased by 79%. The cost of research journal subscriptions, however, rose 300% above inflation over the same period.

These financial barriers create problems for university libraries which already have to sacrifice a large part of their budget for subscriptions and for people outside the university in search of knowledge. The only beneficiaries of this process are the databases that benefit from it.

Because research is funded by grants, taxpayers pay around $ 140 billion a year to fuel university research to which they do not have access.

University librarians can choose to drop these subscriptions, but at the risk of students losing access to academic material. The almost monopolistic structure of academic research publishing has trapped universities and the students they serve in an endless loop of dependence on the access that expensive subscriptions provide.

Solutions to make academic databases more accessible are flawed and require an overhaul of the research industry.

But it is clear that these resources must be free for all. This means setting library budgets, but also pushing for public funding so that these databases can better inform people of all levels of education.


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