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Feb 11, 2013

Why science doesn't belong to everyone (yet)

Publications are the key to science -- but it's an expensive exercise. And it puts a price on research that the public can't afford to pay, argue science writers Upulie Divisekera and Adam G Dunn.

There’s an unspoken pact scientists make with the public. In the same way that doctors and police are held by law and by honour to tell the truth and protect, a scientist is entrusted with performing research with integrity and transparency. The research is carried out, the process painstakingly recorded in laboratory books. The results are scrutinised by peers, often repeatedly, until the work is published in a journal, where readers trust that the work is done accurately and without disguise.

Publications are the key to science: they are a public acknowledgement and record of what has been done and how it can be repeated by other scientists. This ability to replicate is the key to truth and integrity: if the results can be replicated, they are valid. A new fact, a new discovery, has been made.

Given the importance of validation and publication, you would think access to this vital, new information would be relatively easy.  Scientists ought to be shouting their discoveries from the rooftops.  And they are — but they’re also often paying to publish their own work behind a paywall.

In practice, the information in peer-reviewed publications is not freely available to the public. It’s not even freely available to other scientists. Journals have been around for hundreds of years but in the last quarter of the 20th century, academic publishing increased exponentially. The costs used to come from the physical processes of typesetting, printing and binding but access is now primarily electronic. Our largest databases are now closing in on 50 million articles and a library like that isn’t just a wealth of knowledge — it’s a wealthy profit source, too.

Elsevier, one of the largest publishers of science and medicine, is an obscenely profitable enterprise, having booked an operating profit of US$1.1 billion in 2010. Indeed, scientific publishing is one of the lesser-known scandals of history.

Research, largely funded by the taxpayer, is published in journals that charge up to five figures for a yearly institutional subscription. Even worse, scientists are often forced to cover the costs of publication. It’s a nice way for a publisher to turn a profit: the authors are funded by the public to write your articles. Their peers also help to review, edit and compile the work into your journals’ issues. Then you charge the authors’ peers — and the public who funded the work — an exorbitant sum to access the final product. There’s little wonder scientific publishing is one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

How can they do this? Prestige.

“We need to go back to the efficiency of open and free sharing that was necessary when resources were limited …”

Along with the exponential rise in the number of journals over the years we got a ranking system — measures of the impact journals have on research and the wider world. Journals like Nature and Science have come to be the science community’s standards for prestige, and not simply because they are old. Their prestige is rooted in the fact they have published some of the most important discoveries of the past century, because of the impact their pages have had on the rest of science. To be published in Nature or Science has become the currency of tenure, akin to a secret handshake for access to an elite group and continued funding.

The dawn of the information age, coupled with static research funding has seen a change in perception and expectation. Information sources, whether they be newspapers, magazines or professional journals, are moving closer and closer to full digitisation as competition establishes itself in the online world (example: you’re reading this on Crikey right now instead of on a Sunday morning in a monthly that was delivered to your household mailbox). Even more crucial, perhaps, is people have become accustomed to this and are now demanding faster access to more knowledge.

The open access era is fast approaching.

This movement reached a critical mass in recent times as hackers, activists and scientists began campaigning to increase access to publicly-funded knowledge. As universities tightened their belts, they started to cancel library subscriptions to journals at an increasing rate. What’s more, they began to talk about it and the absurdity of the situation began to move into mainstream academic conversations.

This led to a strong push to make all new knowledge publicly available. The ascension of the internet age has given scientists the tools to make information available in a spirit of openness and accessibility. It’s part of a cultural shift towards greater access to everything, a move towards greater transparency in both access and communication within the scientific community and scientists and the public who funds them.

Funding agencies are beginning to mandate open access to any publications produced through their grants process. Institutions have introduced, where possible, “green open access” policies, requiring any publications produced under their auspices be placed in a publicly available database.

Now, academics are posting their work online in tribute to the death of Aaron Swartz, the young developer and activist who recently committed suicide after intense pressure from those who sought to prosecute him for downloading published articles. Even Big Pharma company GlaxoSmithKline has moved to release the data from all published clinical trials to prove the safety and efficacy of the drugs they produce.

Academics around the world are only now catching up to the strong moral stance that was borne of the 1960s computer hackers — that all information should be free. Academics are beginning to think more about how the system often forces their work behind a paywall in the name of prestige, and to look at the obligations they have to those who fund their work.

Producing good science is hard enough. Telling the world about that good science is expensive and wasteful. We need to go back to the efficiency of open and free sharing that was necessary when resources were limited, to make sure we get the most out of the static public funding for science. We can no longer afford to pay for it twice.

*Upulie Divisekera is a scientist, science writer and communicator (tweeting at @upulie); Adam G Dunn is a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation and the Centre for Health Informatics at the University of NSW, working on applying network science to problems in evidence-based medicine



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Justin Wood

Hear hear!

A similar thing happened in the legal world with law reports. They were expensive to subscribe to, required a large library to house but it was necessary to have access to them to properly practice law. Law reports survive for prestige reasons also. Some pretence of greater accuracy is made, but it . The bailee and austlii online projects mean collections of law reports are no longer necessary for the practice of law. The Law reports may eventually be replaced by collections of links to cases regarded as significant by editorial committees – a blog. If public money is spent… Read more »

I meant to say: “Some pretence of greater accuracy is made, but text is provided electronically by judges to online reports so the scope for error is quite small”.

In my case, small but significant !


Hear about the tabloid journalist that wandered into a laboratory – but couldn’t find a cubicle?


What happened with the boycott of Elsevier some academics were calling for last year?


One of the reasons why the scandal of restricted access (over priced) academic journals has been allowed to run so long is that universities, where the hierarchy wants to measure every output, can use a simple formula to assess the quality of an article in a restricted access peer-reviewed journal. There is no easy fail safe formula to measure the impact of open source research.
Academics need the metrics to move up the promotion food chain.


Well done Upulie and Adam. If original research and indeed new discoveries are available to only the privileged few, the iron law of oligarchy applies yet again. Only those privileged few can benefit. Aaron Swartz’ suicide is symptomatic of the extremes those privileged few will go to to protect their status. The days of their sipping free publicly-funded nectar are over.

Tear down the paywalls and make the information available. After all, it’s ours!

Gavin Moodie

The Elsevier boycott remains active on the web site called ‘The cost of knowledge’. Elsevier has moderated its position and behaviour, but not changed it radically.

All Australian universities have a digital repository in which many research papers are posted which are available for down load. The ‘List of Australian university research repositories’ is on the CAIRSS web site.

Most overseas universities active in research have a digital repository but often it is just as easy to donload paper’s from author’s personal or departmental web site.


So let’s see; creating a quality journal, editing it, promoting it, organizing peer review, indexing it for search, hosting it on decent infrastructure with high availability and making it available for thousands of users around the world, as well as printing and distributing the hard copy, isn’t worth anything?
This stuff doesn’t just happen. Surely the company deserves to get some return on their investment.


@ Scott. My Crikey subscription seems a fair price for what we get. It would buy approximately two papers from Elsevier. Scientists often pay the costs of publication. I would pay something for the services you describe, but not the current extortionate prices.


Makes sense!

Hamis Hill
It is arguably the foundation of western science, so what part of “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” don’t these profitable publishers understand? Haunting academic libraries in search of information in the pre-internet “Olden Days” may have come at much personal expense in time but there was no parasitic connection to your bank account in order to capture said information. Where does the “for the purposes of private study”, of international copyright laws, enter into this payment system? That was/is a free system which extends the knowledge and “freedom” base and now this freedom… Read more »

Sincere thanks to the authors of this article – all the points raised have needed saying for soem time, and while there are signs of some change within the scientific community, the general public have little idea of the control some publishing houses exert.

jmendelssohn #6, good point about universities contributing to the problem.


In principle I agree with the above comments. But — to bounce off Scott’s comment, free open publishing brings in another cost, namely filtering out ratbag, copied, and other inappropriate articles. Who will pay for this? The universities? How?
Agreed, Elsivier has rorted the system,but is anarchy a better replacement?

Gavin Moodie

Scholars already write, edit and referee papers without payment by publishers. That is, the publishers get all their high quality assured articles for free. In general the only stages that publishers pay for are advertising, publishing and distribution.

There are a number of refereed and edited open access avenues. Most if not all university repositories have varying types of quality control. There are numerous fully refereed open access journals.

Diane Lester
It should be emphasized that restricting access to academic journals has direct consequences for the general public because they are the world’s bank of medical and scientific knowledge. To illustrate, a few years ago I became ill with celiac disease (CD) and was repeatedly misdiagnosed thus becoming far more ill. At the time I was working at a large university and could easily read medical journals. It soon became evident to me that the knowledge of my doctors, including specialists, was woefully outdated and they had not tested me for CD properly. After becoming informed through the journals I was… Read more »
Adam Dunn
jmendelssohn #6: Yes, I think that the need to immediately measure academic products like they are KPIs, as well as the publish-or-perish mentality has played a part in how easy it has been for publishers to make large profits of publicly-funded work. Gavin Moodie #8: Thanks for pointing these things out 🙂 alex.rosser #14: I think we already have a giant mess of terrible journals and a few good journals. It makes finding good science more and more difficult every day. Here’s an interesting view from medicine: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000326 At the end of the day, the ability to access science has… Read more »
Thanks Gavin Moodie for clarifying the process of scholarly publication. Many quality academic journals are the official publication of scholarly associations which also provide the body of readers as well as the editors, writers and peer reviewers. Once university presses took on publication and sometimes the associations themselves organised the work supported by universities. But sometime during the past couple of decades, the universities reduced funding and the established publishers took on the journals and the prices went up. It isn’t only scientific journals, by the way, but all academic journals: history, literature, linguistics, education, etc. All this at a… Read more »
Diane Lester
Putting research papers on one’s website is not an answer to the problems of paywalls around the literature and in some ways make it worse because it cements the power of the publishers amassing their full text literature databases. The papers should be lodged in a proper repository (either through self archiving or a Gold Open Access journal) so they can be searched using modern information technology, located and preserved for the future. Creative Commons is by far the best arrangement because it makes the literature officially part of the ‘commons’ and this is what Aaron Schwartz helped developed. PLOS… Read more »
Damir Ibrisimovic
There is a much bigger problem in providing results of scientific research to general public: jargon and what I call experts’ tunnel vision. The most of published peer-reviewed work is simply incomprehensible to the most of general public. In addition, the work is usually focused at minute details within a discipline without putting it into the context. There is also a lack of expertise in journals outside of their focus. I was willing to pay for peer-review couple of times, only to be refused because my research touched upon more than one discipline. The latest refusal was by Nature Neuroscience… Read more »


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