As I was writing this week’s post on how to read research papers, I naturally bumped into the question of scientific paywalls. You find an interesting paper through Google Scholar, click through to a big publisher’s website, and all you get to see is the title and abstract. And you are asked to pay anywhere from $10 to $100 to read that single paper.

In this post I want to expand on the question: if you find an interesting paper that’s locked behind a paywall, should you pay to read it to support the scientists who wrote it and reviewed it?

The business of subscription journals

Actually, no. If you pay for access, the publisher keeps ALL the money – and they are making billions in yearly revenue! The core of their subscription-based business model are multi-million contracts with research institutions that unlock access to the publisher’s journals to researchers and students. Who knew science was such a lucrative business, eh? It certainly is for the publishers, but not for authors and reviewers.

Authors – whose research is often funded by governments – send in their papers for free, and they don’t get any royalty when somebody buys access to their papers. Also not paid are the peer reviewers that dissect submitted papers and make sure they are scientifically sound. This also explains why peer reviews take such a long time; they are basically a hobby on top of all the other work the scientists are doing.

Money doesn't grow on a tree, but the old publishing model of subscription journals comes close.

Sure, publishers have some costs to cover, but their profit margin is higher than for tech companies that are supposed to be the top money makers in the world! And hey, it’s a clever business model: the core content you publish is funded by research institutions who then pay to access their own content.

You might be wondering: why do researchers keep playing this ridiculous game? Well, remember when I wrote about how scientific likes affect your promotion and job stability? That’s why. Researchers hate not being able to freely access their own papers just as much as you do. But if their institution highly ranks certain journals, they are forced to submit their papers to those journals. And why do they keep reviewing papers for free under such conditions? Again, a matter of prestige and dedication to the scientific method. And why do institutions value paywalled journals by greedy publishers? Because citations. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

Newer, more open models of publishing and sharing research findings

This old model sort of made sense when publishers had to actually print journals and send them off to subscribers around the world. But in the age of the internet, which allows us to share knowledge fast and cheaply, shouldn’t it be easier to make research findings available to anyone, for free?

Open journals: the authors cover the costs for the readers

Indeed, researchers are wondering the same thing. After all, they want more people to access (and preferably cite) their work as well. So a new model of open journals has been emerging. Under this model, the authors pay a fee when they submit their paper so that it can be made available for free to the readers. One of the best known open access publishers is PLOS, which publishes seven journals and is mostly funded by publication fees. Does this mean they’ll publish anything if you pay the fee? Nope, in open journals worth publishing in, papers must still pass a strict peer review process. (But beware of open journals without peer review, they might be predatory journals.)

Now, I imagine traditional publishers of subscription journals saw this model and thought: “Hmm, how could we make even more money?” – and proceeded to introduce hybrid open journals. Under this model, the authors of the paper pay when they want to make their paper openly available in what is otherwise a paywalled subscription journal. The “best” of both worlds: the publisher makes money both from the subscriptions and the processing fee to cover the cost of making the research paper freely available. I know, I know, publishing content for free is soooo expensive! And – get this – the fees are usually higher than at open journals. Silicon Valley has got nothing on this ingenious business model!

Why would researchers submit their work for free and pay the journals they are already paying for? Remember, these are highly ranked journals that can up your citation game. Also, the funder of your research (e.g., EU’s Horizon 2020 Program) might be requiring you to make your findings openly available. Hence, pay for the prestige and luxury of open science.

Researchers sharing their own work

But it turns out scientists actually like sharing their work online for free because they want to share their findings with the world. In some fields, you can find repositories of e-prints – electronic preprints – which are posted online after moderation, not a full peer review. The best known and oldest electronic archive (yeah, it was launched in the 90ies, as you might suspect from this phrasing) is arXiv (pronounced “archive”). ArXiv distributes free scientific papers in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science and more. Similarly, we now have open repositories in other fields: SocArXiv for social sciences, PsyArXiv for psychological sciences, and more.

In fast evolving fields like machine learning, publishing your latest research on arXiv can be almost like planting a flag and shouting “first!” so you can prove that your algorithm kicked ass before everyone else’s without having to wait months for the full peer review process of an established journal. Most e-prints also appear in journals – again, researchers are motivated by the academic scoring system that affects their status and promotion options – but it’s not a requirement. Mind you, a lot of journals explicitly forbid posting your own work online, but sharing a preprint or almost-final versions can be a nice little hack.

Researchers are also opening up their work by sharing submitted or published papers on ResearchGate or – the Facebooks for researchers, only less creepy –, on their own websites or elsewhere. Google Scholar is usually able to find these PDFs. If there isn’t a PDF version freely available online, sites like ResearchGate offer the option to request the full text from the authors privately.

But let’s be honest, most of the times you just want to briefly look at a paper and don’t have time to wait for a researcher’s reply on ResearchGate, Twitter or email. What then? What other options do you have to read a research paper that has been published in a prestigious paywalled journal?

Sci-Hub: the pirate of scientific research

Enter Sci-Hub. Created by Alexandra Elbakyan, one super cool fig from Kazakhstan, who, like many scientists before, got frustrated by paywalls publishing companies put around publicly funded research. Scientists were already exchanging papers on forums, and Alexandra – a computer science student – decided to automate the process by building Sci-Hub, a sort of Napster for scientific research.

Guess what? Publishing companies were neither enthused nor amused and started fighting back with lawsuits. To name a few of the most notable cases: Elsevier was awarded $15 million of damages by a US court, and a Swedish ISP was ordered to block access to Sci-Hub. But Alexandra is not giving up. She lives in an undisclosed location to avoid fines and prison and is regularly changing the URL of the website get around bans. So you might want to follow its Twitter profile for updates on availability.

Once on the Sci-Hub website, you can just paste the paper’s title or the URL from the journal’s website and Sci Hub will try to find the PDF version of the paper for you. Often, you will even find full books of scientific research.

The open access movement

Hopefully, there will soon be a time when Sci-Hub is no longer needed, and Alexandra can move on with her life. Calls for open access to science are getting louder: institutions are re-negotiating their contracts with publishers, the European Commission requires projects funded by Horizon 2020 to offer open access to their peer-reviewed research findings, and a bunch of other European research funders have recently announced Plan S that will require funded scientist to share their research findings for free.

So while things are moving forward, the move to open, free access won’t happen overnight. Until that happens, you might consider donating some Bitcoin to keep Sci-Hub up and running.

Dig deeper: recommendations

Unbrick your fig challenge

Peek behind the paywall
Found a paper through Google Scholar that has no publicly available version? Why not try to use Sci-Hub for a peek behind the paywall?

You will receive:

  • 💎 5 critical thinking