The Case of Free Science: Dynamics of Science Publishing

While writing this article, a question popped up: ‘Who are the people who read research papers?’ I sometimes do, specifically to get some in-depth information about a certain topic that I am interested in, but what is the actual demographic of people who read research papers? To get an answer, I turned to Google. The first link was of Wiley, which is a scholarly publishing business. It directed me to a research paper titled ‘Who reads research articles? An altmetrics analysis of Mendeley user categories’.
Well, that was the end of the line. After reading the abstract of the paper, the moment I proceeded to read the full article, I was hit by a gigantic “Paywall” of 38 USD. I couldn’t read the full article if I couldn’t pay. And thus my research for this article stopped then and there.

The economics of scholarly publishing is a very peculiar one. Though it is a basic model that involves the three basic elements—the author, the publisher and the reader— the author of a research paper is never paid with royalties the way authors of literature are paid. Instead, sometimes the author is asked to pay for the colour pages and sometimes for the whole article they want to publish which can range from 1500 USD to 2000 USD, though the latter happens mostly in open access journals. Other authors who have been in the research field for a while and have earned recognition in the community (let’s call them the elites) get their research published in multinational publishing houses like Wiley and Elsevier, get it published using the research grants they get from their departments or institutes. Then again, to get such a grant, these institutes always look for expertise in the field of the researcher. So the elites are always favoured over any upcoming, young researchers. This type of elitism hierarchy is daunting for young researchers as they can’t publish—neither in the high-impact journals nor in open access as they can’t pay the lofty sums mentioned above. So most of the young researchers are either stuck in this vicious grant cycle or forced to pay up at an open access journal to get published.

All these economical conundrums faced by the authors (and equally by the readers, as I will elaborate on later) are due to the fact that these models are based on the idea of profit. As Lyman and Chodorow put it in ‘The Future of Scholarly Communication (1998)’:

“University presses and disciplinary associations were founded to disseminate research in the original cycle of scholarly communication. The faculty produced the work to be published; non-profit publishers organized the distribution of knowledge; the university library bought the published work at an artificially high price, as a subsidy for learned societies; and the faculty used this literature as the foundation for further research and teaching. […] However, over the past fifty years, as federal research funding has encouraged specialization, journal publishing has become commercialized, and some parts of the scientific and technical literature are now being monopolized by multinational publishing conglomerates.” 

Over time as scientific societies and their journals were formed, there has been an increase in the dependence of the scientific community on publishers. Nowadays, the scientific community aids these conglomerates when it should be the other way around; in other words, when the publishers should be a tool for the research community to spread knowledge and information, it is the researcher community as a whole that is at the mercy of the publishers.

Even after these many obstacles and difficulties, research papers do get published and read. Sci-Hub is an online repository of almost 70 million research papers that are free to download. It bypasses paywalls on research papers imposed by publishing houses and is an automated system that leaks papers through educational institutions. Sci-Hub has a copyright infringement case filed against it by Elsevier, another major publishing house. Alexandra Elbakyan is the founder of Sci-Hub and a graduate student in Kazakhstan. In a letter to the judge handling the ‘Elsevier vs. Sci-Hub’ case, she clears her stand on pirating research papers. Like me, Alexandra Elbakyan too had difficulties in accessing research papers which were fortified by paywalls of 32USD (on Elsevier) and more. The only way she could access these needed articles were through pirating, which she did. And for that matter of fact, she was not alone. Lots of student researchers as well as faculties were in need of such articles but were restricted by insanely high priced paywalls. The article that I was citing for ‘Who reads research papers’ was priced 38USD which roughly equals 2500 rupees. Well, that’s my pocket money for half a month.

Alexandra Elbakyan – every research student’s secret blessing                                                                     Credits: Apneet Jolly, FLICKR

Now, the philosophical or moral ground that Sci-Hub is based on is one that aims to eradicate any barrier that limits communication of information or limits the number of people who can access this information. It is a direct confrontation with the idea of paywalls. Also, it challenges the ‘high-impact’ journals for using their reputation and reach to exploit both the authors and the readers economically. Authors are judged on their publication history, the better the publication house, the more credible they are. Sci-Hub is a guerrilla tactic against such an establishment.

Sci-hub with all its benefits is, however, illegal and has a chance of being shut down. Open access journals, on the other hand, are a boon for the readers and is a systematic approach to degrade the problem of paywalls, though they put the authors in a problem. As stated before, open access journals charge the authors to publish their research. So just for the sake of readers, should the authors be exploited?
Initiatives like SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics) are a ray of hope that supports both the authors and readers by funding the authors for the publishing charges and keeps the articles open access. It has funded more than 16 thousand articles since its conception in 2014.

The fight for unrestricted information and free science has a long way to go, as Big Academia will continue to rage against the resistance. The scientific community will soon have to choose and risk their priorities to settle for a democratic and free environment—for science.

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Kushal Choudhary

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