Down With the Paywall

Written by Kyle Guevarra
Illustration by Savio Aquino
Published 2020 December 15

The Magic Key

As a fifth year BS Biology major, I dread my upcoming graduation. I fear leaving the Ateneo campus and saying goodbye to the many that I love — my friends, organizations, and the gorgeous sceneries I have seen. The most painful loss and goodbye upon my graduation, however, would be my magic key — or more correctly, my Rizal Library Access.

If you’ve ever wondered why the library fees cost an exorbitant amount, it is because of the academic journal access that comes with it. We are given access to several databases containing thousands of research articles in various fields, ranging from Cell Biology to Clinical Psychology. Many prestigious papers on various subjects, however, are behind paywalls — paywalls that are higher here in the Philippines than elsewhere. Access to research requires the almighty dollar, but in the Philippines, we are stuck with the pitiful peso. If not for my Rizal Library access, I would be unable to write my thesis or complete all the various research projects college demands from us as students.

Getting institutional access to journal articles may sound boring to most, but for any aspiring researcher, it is paradise. After all, access to journals is the lifeblood of all researchers. Without it, researchers such as myself are as good as a knife with a blade so dull it bounces off one’s skin. In fact, once I graduate from Ateneo, my research abilities will weaken, similar to how Samson did when his hair was cut by Delilah.

Whether I like it or not, however, that day will come.

And as that day gets closer, the nights get colder. For when I graduate, I will have to make my journey over that damned paywall.

Why the hell is reading and publishing research so damn expensive, anyway?

The Price of Accessing Research

What is the price of research? Well, I would like to say that research is actually priceless. Good research can save lives; it can solve anything from back pains to world hunger. What is the price of producing research? It can range from a couple thousand to a million dollars, covering everything from reagents to paper for printing. But what is the price of accessing and publishing research? Alarmingly, it is around several thousand dollars. For instance, a subscription to The Journal of Analytical Biochemistry by Oxford University costs around 8,000 dollars, approximately 400,000 pesos annually.[1] Of course, such a thing is often paid for by the university; elsewhere, paid-for-access to a journal is unlikely.

A more practical option for most researchers would be to pay for individual articles instead. Access for a single article, on average, costs approximately 30 dollars.[2] Of course, as researchers, we won’t need just one paper; we would need several. After all, excellent research demands learning from established literature written by experts on the subject. If we are lucky, all the articles we read are absolutely free. If not, we would have to shell out 1,500 dollars for it at the least.

The number of times I’ve read an article only to find out it was irrelevant to my research has had me pulling my hair out. Thankfully, I don’t have to pay for such costs as a student (well, technically, my parents do). Nonetheless, the moment I graduate and Rizal Library shuts its doors for me, I am on my own.

Becoming a full-time research assistant in the Philippines does not guarantee the said costs are covered. Excluding those who work in a large international company or one of the big universities, budget for journal access is unheard of. As researchers, we might even have to cover these costs ourselves — a cost our given salaries can barely afford. According to glassdoor (a website that lists various job offers), the average salary of a researcher is 370 dollars, around 18,500 pesos. Unless we’re some sort of robot that has no other need but to research, at most, we can afford only twelve articles. The other half, we would have to scour the depths of Sci-Hub and open access websites to attain.

Alright, let’s say we do get the research articles necessary and that we are fully funded. We have valid data ready to publish. That must mean that we are finished, right?

Nope. Not at all.

As we are ready to share our research to the world, the publishers bare their fangs and sink their teeth into our already empty, withered wallet.

That’s right, even authors have to pay up.

Well, not always as some publishers have no publication fees. As a consequence, however, the lack of publication fees must be recovered, and this means that the research has to be put behind a paywall, limiting access to the written paper. Now if we are as generous as Barry Marshal (this man sacrificed his stomach to fight ulcers, look him up), we can put the journal articles on open access. However, publishing the paper as open access requires us to pay the so-called “Article Processing Fees” which can range anywhere from five hundred to three thousand dollars. Where does the money from these fees go? Editing and peer review, but even the editors and peer reviewers are unpaid. In truth, all the cash goes to the pockets of the publishing companies.[3]

These damned publishing practices are predatory.

We come to them on our knees begging for research to read so we may do our own research. When we finally finish writing, we have to make the moral dilemma of either limiting access to our research or paying up a hefty amount for open access. Regardless of that, all our money ends up in the publisher’s pockets, yet we find ourselves coming back as we have to. If the paper soars to the highest echelons of science — if that research is not used to develop products or have any patents — we don’t even get paid for it at all.

For Christ’s sake, we’re being robbed!

The Future lies in Open Source

Despite the absurd prices to read and publish, we researchers pay it anyway. Why? Because, at the end of the day, we researchers want to help. Whether it is to understand the world more or to find a cure to a disease, research is here to better society. It is within the grind of repeated trials, new discoveries, and failures where we move forward. It is within knowledge that we are able to find and, most importantly, share with the world. After all, what is the point of knowledge if we do not share it?

Access to articles should be made free — free to read, free to publish. Paywalls in reading and writing research do not benefit anyone but the publisher. Most of the jacked up prices really just boil down to monopolies set up by large publishers.[4] Sure, one can argue that the peer-reviews provided by journals are a huge boon; however, it creates an elitist research culture that benefits researchers who can pay for the exorbitant fees. Open-source benefits us researchers, allowing us to consolidate knowledge and find discoveries at an accelerated pace. Current COVID-research for diagnostics and vaccines would not be as fast as it is today if it weren’t for the open-access treaty many researchers had agreed to.

So, we want open-access. The question is, how do we get there?

The road to open-access will demand plenty of discourse and disagreements. It will require the cooperation of libraries, researchers, universities, and publishers. It will involve putting in regulations mandating price ceilings to prevent greedy practices. Above all, it will require time. Who knows what new system might take over to change the way we read and publish papers? Whatever it is, the world will be better for it. We researchers will finally be able to sigh in relief knowing that we won’t need to shed more dollars to read and publish research.

Really, the only price we should pay for research is the time spent studying it.

References

  1. Elsevier.  Subscription price list for librarians and agents. 2020. Elsevier. elsevier.com. Retrieved from: https://www.elsevier.com/books-and-journals/journal-pricing/print-price-list
  1. Resnick, B. Belluz J. The war to free science – how librarians, pirates, and fnders are liberating the world’s academic research from paywalls. 2019. Vox. vox.com. Available from: https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/3/18271538/open-access-elsevier-california-sci-hub-academic-paywalls
  1. Williams, S.Scientists, Publishers Debate Paychecks for Peer Reviewers. 2020. Available from: https://www.the-scientist.com/careers/scientists-publishers-debate-paychecks-for-peer-reviewers-68101#:~:text=Jason%20Hoyt%2C%20the%20CEO%20of,%2450%20to%20%24100%20per%20review.
  2. Naughton, J. Academic publishing doesn’t add up. 2012.The Guardian. theguardian.com. Available  from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/apr/22/academic-publishing-monopoly-challenged

For Further Reading:

  1. Aarssen L, Lortie C. Ending elitism in peer-review publication. 2009. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. 3. doi:10.4033/iee.2009.2.4.e.
  2. Murphy, K. Should All Research Papers Be Free? 2016. The New York Times. nytimes.com. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/opinion/sunday/should-all-research-papers-be-free.html

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