Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (II. Problems)

27 Jan

(This is part II of a three-part series on open access. Read Part I here.)

Last time I wrote about the difficulties many scientists and I face almost everyday when we try to access scientific research articles blocked behind paywalls by journal publishers. For me, there are two major problems with the current model of publishing scientific papers in a closed system, where the access of scientific knowledge is restricted by the publishers.

First of all, financially speaking, this system is extremely unfair to scientists. I am not great with financial analyses, but this was written about on the SV-POW post “The obscene profits of commercial scholarly publishers.” Yes, the company needs to profit. Except, while other companies invest in inventory, technology, and creative ideas paid for by the companies, journal publishers don’t pay any of the scientists who review the articles and contribute to the quality of the journals are paid by the publishers. The publishers (particularly commercial publishers) ripped all the benefits without giving any compensation to the scientists and the public that support them (1).

As more journals offer digital subscriptions, the cost of physically printing and mailing journals to subscribers should have dropped. While I understand there are now costs to maintain servers and websites, I don’t believe that justifies the significant increase in subscription fees. What made the situation worse is that some commercial publishers sell “bundled” subscription packages to universities (also called the “big deal”). This means that in order to gain access to a prestigious journal, a library can be forced to subscribe to other unnecessary journals, raising the overall expenses.

The end result of this is that research information becomes extremely inaccessible to scientists, and universities scramble to pay subscription fees in order to afford their students and researchers access to journals.

Second, this “lockdown” of scientific knowledge means that we miss out on many incredible opportunities for better knowledge exchange, innovation, communication, and outreach. Here are a few examples I can think of off the top of my head:

For further reading, here is a great summary about who can benefit from open access on the The Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) website. And, Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics, made this animation, which covers the problems with the current publication model quite well.

More and more scientists have started pushing for open access. What is the progress? What are the potential solutions? What can we all do to help? I will continue on with this topic in my next post.

Read Part III. Solutions?

Postscript: By the way, I was going to quote a reference suggesting that, while in a similar industry, medical journal publishers have profit margins much greater than those of book and periodical publishers. Except, well, that paper is blocked behind a paywall by Elsevier right now…isn’t that funny…But reference #25 was used by Dorsey in his paper analyzing the finances of top US Medical Journals – and this one is open access published by a professional association, not by a commercial publisher.

Postscript2: There are some discussions/debates regarding whether to allow commercial reuse of open access research. To be honest I am still working out the benefits and disadvantages in my head. For further reading of this see Cameron Neylon’s article Science publishing: Open access must enable open use. You can be the judge and let me know what you think of it.


6 Responses to “Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (II. Problems)”

  1. Alex Brown January 27, 2013 at 11:37 am #


    Thanks for linking through to my post… glad to know someone out there sees it my way as well 🙂

    You post gives a much broader overview of the problems arising in the OA debate than mine, so I think they go well together.


    • Terrific T January 27, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

      Hello Alex! I am glad that you think they go well together 😀 Like you said my post is more of an overview, so I try to direct readers to specific (perhaps more personal as well) posts if they are interested in reading further.

      Happy blogging!

  2. Artem Kaznatcheev January 29, 2013 at 4:07 am #

    I didn’t know about the Archives of Scientific Psychology initiative. That seems promising, but as always has a hidden danger. A lot of times it is hard to summarize technical work in plain language. In particular, it is very easy (and tempting) to over-represent your work in a plain language setting. Especially in fields like medicine, psychology, and neuroscience this can be extremely dangerous, with people reading the plain summaries, being misinformed but thinking they are properly informed because they looked at the original source. Then again, maybe that is better than typical science journalism.

    One of the big issues that faces OA is how to fund the marginal costs that will always remain. Everyone seems to be pushing for the author-pays model, but it is not clear that this option is optimal.

    • Terrific T January 29, 2013 at 10:32 am #

      Thanks for the comment! Yes there is definitely such a danger. But at least the authors who wrote the papers are responsible for the plain language summary. While it is tempting, I feel that it is the nature of (most) scientists to be more cautious than mass media (which already over-sell the immediate applications of much of the research work, and the general public has no choice), especially when they know that this is going straight out to the public. And I also think that this introduces a level of transparency not just to other scientists, but also to the public.

      (Although, I do get your point about technical work. It will be more difficult indeed. I am very curious about how the ASP initiative will work out – we will find out soon I guess)

      I am writing about different OA models next 😀 At the moment, I am not a big fan of the author-pays model, but will be reading more in the next little while so will find out more.


  1. Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (I. The Issue) « Science, I Choose You! - February 6, 2013

    […] Part II. Problems & Part III. […]

  2. Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (III. Solutions?) « Science, I Choose You! - February 17, 2013

    […] This is part III of my 3 part series about Open Access. Read Part I. Read Part II. […]

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