People believe that science brings progress, and history makes a strong case supporting that belief. But today, the practice of scientific research is being carried out rather differently.
Try to Google an in-depth topic, and you’ll eventually run into scientific articles that seem to contain exactly the information you seek. But when you click on them, they only give you access to an abstract or summary of the findings. The full text is hidden behind what’s known as a paywall.
Problems of a changing industry
Paywalls are implemented by a handful of companies that publish over half of the world’s scientific research. They own thousands of journals, charging individual users a premium for single article access and libraries and other academic institutions a fortune for annual subscriptions.
This practice has come under fire lately, with an especially high-profile critic being the entire University of California system. In February 2019, UC campuses elected not to renew their Elsevier subscription, priced at almost $11 million yearly, on the basis that people shouldn’t be priced out of scientific knowledge.
Scientific research was once a grassroots activity in essence. Early scientific journals in the 17th century began out of the desire of small scientific societies to share knowledge. Printing these publications incurred costs, and they were sold as subscriptions. And membership in early scientific societies was certainly not something the public could aspire to.
Yet scientific journals of centuries past weren’t treated as cash cows. The industry has become far more lucrative today, especially as the internet has enabled consolidation. An oligopoly of publishers can now bundle thousands of journals together into a massively priced subscription package, even though over a third of them are never accessed by users.
The publishers argue that these paywalls, with their constantly rising costs, are justified by the value added. They organize the editing, peer review, and quality control functions. Yet compensation isn’t funneled to the academics who conduct research or to the peer reviewers who vet the claims and methodology in those papers before publication.
An obstacle to progress
Today, conducting formal scientific research has become inseparable from the for-profit operations and motives of the publishing industry. It’s a problem for scientists seeking to build upon previous research and whose institutions can’t afford access to these journals. It’s not enough to stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once did. You have to pay the publishing giants, too.
For businesses looking to innovate, scientific research can provide the genesis of an idea or the confirmation that you’re onto something. A company that designed behavior-based traps to bring mosquito populations under control needed 16 years of academic research to find the perfect design and prove its efficacy. If you’re a startup with limited funding, can you afford to invest that much in your own research? Access to existing knowledge saves time and money, but paywalls block that.
Finally, paywalls prevent the public from engaging with research results. This matters because they are ultimately the largest stakeholder, public funding backs a substantial amount of research, and they are often participants in trials, surveys, and the like. Yet only an estimated 28% of all scientific publications are open access.
Without public engagement in research, there’s no accountability. Science affects policy decisions and the specific directions in which progress is headed, but due to paywalls, you have no awareness upon which to voice your concerns in this area.
The paywall system and the entire profit-making approach to scientific knowledge need to change. But most of us can’t really sit and wait for that to happen.
The pressing need for open access to research has led to several workarounds. Some of them are convenient and free but illegal: piracy surrounding research papers has risen, similar to the music industry years ago.
You don’t need to resort to unethical or illegal means because there are several legitimate ways to get past paywalls. The first is to use the ‘request access’ feature often built into the paywall platform repository. This sends a message to the author on the publisher’s platform. Along similar lines, you can send them an email or snail mail at their professional address, often listed in their university affiliation.
The problem with this method is that authors might not respond immediately due to their level of personal activity or engagement. However, it’s a promising option if you have time. Cambridge research indicates that at least 38% of repository requests were fulfilled, plus an undetermined amount of separate requests via email.
Another option would be doing more exhaustive online searches using Google Scholar or a tool like Unpaywall to find free versions of that article uploaded legally on the web.
Finally, you can try searching online for preprint versions of the paper or request those from the authors. As unreviewed drafts of the final paper, these won’t be blocked by the paywall and can often provide valuable information for your purposes.