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Paywalls: Taking science backwards

Paywalls: Taking science backwards

Photographer:Fotograaf: flickr.com/h_pampel

Opinion

It was a Wednesday afternoon, dark skies, cold feet and nothing to postpone tomorrow’s deadline. I was supposed to write a research proposal and give a short presentation about it. Working last minute, as usual, my literature search was going nowhere. Every time I found THE paper that would save me, that would have all the answers to my questions…I hit a paywall. I was not satisfied. Yes sure, there were other openly available articles and many that I was able to access via the university’s library. But still, I was not satisfied. Why is public funded research not openly available to the public? is what I asked myself. Truth is, that is not what I asked myself, that’s what I eventually found out. And I was most certainly NOT satisfied. 

Fortunately, the scientific community is taking action against paywalls, and several movements have been launched and pressure is being applied. For instance, as of 2020, eleven funding bodies in Europe, including the Netherlands, will demand that every scientific article it funds to be openly accessible as soon as it is published. This action includes renouncing to publish articles in hundreds of journals, including those with high impact factor such as Nature, Cell, and Science. "We think this could create a tipping point," commented Marc Schiltz, the president of Science Europe, who was involved in organizing the plan. This plan is called “Plan S”, with the S standing for ‘speed’, or ‘stop paywalls’.

Another initiative was also taken just recently, with the release of Paywall, a documentary about the open-access movement. The documentary covers interviews with academics from different disciplines, the creator of Sci-Hub herself, and even representatives of highly renowned journals, with some refusing to take part or even comment on the issue. The documentary sheds light on the gravity of the issue by highlighting several injustices in the system. And one of these injustices targets students and academics like myself.

Whenever students hit a paywall, the first thing we do is make use of the university’s online library to access an article. When out of luck, before the frustration builds up, our only solution was to resort to Sci-hub. Because what student on a budget, is willing to pay 30 euro for a single research article? Sci-hub is a millennial solution, illegal, but a solution. It was created by a graduate student, Alexandra Elbakyan, whose goal was “removing barriers on the way of knowledge”. The platform provides its users with over 70 million academic papers and articles openly available for download, free of charge. Problem solved? Most certainly not.

Universities across the world dedicate a big amount of their budget to scientific journals to access their content. While big universities spend big, smaller universities invest small. But the injustice doesn’t end here, it only begins. What I came to find out is that journals make different deals with different universities and research institutes, including different contracts, and different payments. But one rule is common to all: none of the parties must communicate or disclose the details of the deal with any third party. So, we may get access to the same articles, same content, but you may be paying ten times more, and we shall never know… Elsevier alone, one of the biggest and most reputable scientific journal, has a corporate profit margin of 40 per cent. That is more than the profits of Bank of America, Toyota and Walmart combined. Without a doubt, there are many costs that come with publishing in the scientific world, but the costs could be much lower. For instance, nowadays online content is more used, accessible and favoured than print. Also, the process of peer-reviewing — an essential step towards the publishing of research — is mostly done voluntarily by fellow scientists, and seldom paid for by journals.

Similar actions do not only stall research projects but place barriers in moving scientific knowledge forward, at a pace that could be of much help to many, including those that need it the most: patients. For instance, what if the cure for Alzheimer’s disease lies in the brain of a talented scientist in a small university in South Africa, where no sufficient funds are available to break down paywalls?

As an early-career scientist, I am intrigued to see what will come next, but I am also disappointed. When I first decided to become a scientist, I saw the scientific community as something to look up to. I thought of a career in science as a devotion to a higher purpose, to helping those who suffer, to take part in ameliorating the lives of the ill, to advance our knowledge of human kind, to focus on the bigger picture of moving science forward. But here I am all grown up, one step ahead in my career than I was yesterday, losing my illusions and facing the harsh truth of the real world. Will I rethink my motives and intentions? I won’t and nor should you. So today I applaud those advocating open-access and especially those that are proactive in this movement. Together we must redefine what science is, let us redefine a prestigious scientist, not by the price they have to pay but by the quality of their research and selflessness in their work. That is why, we need YOU to make research open access.

Katherine Bassil

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