The Pandora’s Box of Scientific Publishing

By Rebecca Fleeman

You, a critical thinker and curious person, hear about a recent scientific discovery or therapeutic that you want to learn more about. Rather than becoming an armchair expert by watching the latest unqualified YouTube video on the topic or queueing up a biased celebrity’s podcast, you intelligently seek out peer-reviewed scientific studies to better understand the science and evaluate the data. After pulling up PubMed, the top search engine for finding biomedical literature, you are stopped several times by pop-ups similar to Figure 1, telling you that in order to proceed, you must pay. This screen is every late-night, science writing, graduate student’s nightmare. Students, as well as researchers and the general public, do not always have the means to pay for subscriptions or single articles but want to grow their knowledge on biomedical topics. Many schools and companies pay for their employees to have access to a selection of journals, but inevitable, there are still hundreds of journals not covered by these subscriptions and that remain behind the dreaded paywall. We are continuously encouraging the public to seek out reputable scientific information, but how can we expect this when scientific information is not always readily accessible? Here, I will explain the current state of paying for scientific articles, the injustice that currently exists, and where we are moving on the resolution for this long overdue issue.

Figure 1. Paywall that appears when you attempt to view many research articles, even those funded by your tax dollars through the NIH. Photo Credit: Screen shot from Nature Journal.

Your Money and Your Access to Science

Did you know that a portion of your annual federal tax dollars go towards biomedical science advancement? Specifically, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) receives taxpayer dollars to allocate grant money to both extramural (academic and industry institutions not associated with the NIH) and intramural (NIH-owned laboratories) research. Each year the NIH invests over $40 billion to over 300,000 researchers who apply for funding1. Because our money goes on to fund the studies that end up behind these paywalls, many feel that all scientific publications funded by NIH money should be freely accessible. Indeed, in 2008, the NIH mandated the Public Access Policy to fulfill this demand,  requiring that the public have free access to any NIH-funded research article within 12 months of publication, consistent with copyright law. So, for those first 12 months, journals can bank on subscription fees and single article purchases, while after 12 months, the paywall falls.

What if the Research is not NIH Funded?

There are unlimited other avenues for research funding that are not covered by the Public Access Policy, as the federal government only funds about 22% of biomedical research in the US2. Internal funding from academic institutions, venture capitalist funding, non-profits, private companies, pharmaceutical companies, and more contribute to paying for science that your tax dollars never see. What law exists to share this research freely with the public? None. Thus, years after these articles are published, their contents can remain behind a paywall, their price at the journal’s discretion.

Journal Access Policies

Journals have different access policies. Many journals work off subscriptions and single article purchases. Notably, when you see the article price tag on the pop-up, such as the $32.00 in Figure 1, 100% of that money goes to the publisher while 0% goes to the researchers. It is worthwhile to note that in many cases, researchers actually had to pay the journal to be published there. This publication fee can be over $10,000 in some cases3

The most recent uproar in publishing practices hit Twitter hard when Nature, a highly regarded scientific journal decided to create an “Open Access” option to authors. The idea of Open Access for journals began in the 1990s4 and puts the burden of paying for the article on the authors. In the case of Nature’s 2021 joining of the Open Access party4, authors who want their articles to be openly available must pay $11,390 to publish their article in the journal. That is one third of a graduate student’s yearly salary. While many scientists want to publish Open Access to make their discoveries freely known to the public, many academics do not have the means to afford such publication types if the journals charge this much. Not all journals have this extreme price tag. Reputable journals like PLOS ONE only charge $1,350 for their accepted articles5. However, note that Nature’s impact factor, a sign of prestige, is 49.96 while PLOS ONE’s is 3.24. Thus, what options do scientists that still want to publish in highly prestigious journals like Nature then have? Publish through the subscription pipeline, where although they can publish at low-to-no cost, their articles could remain behind a paywall forever, if the research was not funded by a government agency.

Where Does the Money Go? 

Publishing in scientific journals that are searchable through PubMed means they have gone through the rigorous peer review process. Peer review involves at least two scientists deeply reading submitted works to determine whether the science is sound and accurate. So how much of that Open Access charge, article fee, or subscription fee money goes to the peer reviewers and the authors of the work who spent countless hours on the article? Zero. Zero dollars. 

Instead, it is expected that academics “give back” to the field of science by reviewing each other’s work4. While most researchers are altruistic enough to give back, that does not discount the amount of time that they pour into reviewing articles for the miniscule return of a line on their CV. Every dollar charged for the process of publication and for others to read the publication goes to the publisher. What is it that authors are paying the journal to do, besides format their article and publish a PDF online (now that the majority of articles are accessed online and not even printed, removing that cost)? Nature’s site says it covers editorial work, technical infrastructure and innovation, production of articles, promotion of journal and content, and customer service6. You can be the judge of whether or not those services should cost academics on tight budgets $11,390.

Illegal Downloads

Enter Sci-Hub, a website currently blocked in several countries7 that allows those who visit to download millions of articles for free (Figure 2). Sci-Hub’s own description boasts “the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to research papers”. Without any log-ins or fees, people can obtain PDFs from a large collection of over 85 million scientific articles that were previously blocked by paywalls. Sci-Hub, started in 2011 by a university student from Kazakhstan named Alexandra Elbakyan, is under great scrutiny and in multiple legal battles with scientific journals over copyright infringement7,8. Publishers argue that pirate sites like Sci-Hub threaten integrity and compromise intellectual property rights7. During India’s lawsuit against Sci-Hub, its Twitter account was suspended8 and since its US legal case in 2015, Sci-Hub’s domain name has changed multiple times. The site now operates on a network called Handshake that converts IP addresses into domain names, allowing Sci-Hub to maintain its online presence even after having domain names revoked9. For her efforts in creating and maintaining Sci-Hub, Nature even named Elbakyan in their 2016 “Ten people who mattered this year”.

Figure 2. Screenshot of the Sci-Hub website banner. Photo Credit: https://sci-hubtw.hkvisa.net/

Solutions

In the wake of the Sci-Hub lawsuits came cOAlition S, an initiative for Open Access publishing created by European research funding organizations. Essentially, research funding organizations can join cOAlition S, and in doing so, agree to abide by their Plan S principles. These rules require publications to be Open Access while authors or their institutions retain copyright of their publications. In some cases, this means that cOAlition S funding organizations pay the high Open Access charges set out by journals for the scientists they fund10. Notably, cOAlition S does not support journals that offer ‘hybrid’ publishing, meaning journals that give the option of Open Access and paid subscription charges. The one exception being if the journal shows that it is on a “transitional pathway towards full Open Access within a clearly defined timeframe”10. Thus, cOAlition S funders aim to steer their researchers to journals which publish only Open Access to ensure their science is freely disseminated to everyone.

The fiercely debated financial dark side of scientific publishing will no doubt continue to ruffle feathers for years to come. Resolutions like cOAlition S are gaining traction, but for now, many frustrated academics must continue to grapple with high publishing prices in order to follow their goal of creating publicly accessible science. A new framework is truly needed for publications, including in the peer review process, to ensure that everyone is fairly treated for their time and commitment to the advancement and communication of science. If you can be patient, you can always reach out to the authors on an article of interest, and many are happy to provide you with a PDF. For now, make sure to appreciate your access to articles and speak up about your thoughts on scientific accessibility! 

TL:DR

  • Scientists typically must pay to publish their research.
  • This research is often published behind paywalls where the fees do not go to the author.
  • Open Access options for research journals are on the rise.

References

1. NIH Budget. (2020). Available at: https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/what-we-do/budget. 

2. Bluestone, J. A., Beier, D. & Glimcher, L. H. The NIH is in danger of losing its edge in creating biomedical innovations. STAT (2018). Available at: https://www.statnews.com/2018/01/03/nih-biomedical-research-funding/. (Accessed: 17th February 2022)

3. Else, H. Nature journals reveal terms of landmark open-access option. Nature 588, 19–20 (2020).

4. Van Noorden, R. Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature 495, 426–429 (2013).

5. JournalGuide – PLOS ONE. Available at: https://www.journalguide.com/journals/plos-one. (Accessed: 17th February 2022)

6. Publishing options | Nature. Available at: https://www.nature.com/nature/for-authors/publishing-options. (Accessed: 17th February 2022)

7. Else, H. What Sci-Hub’s latest court battle means for research. Nature 600, 370–371 (2021).

8. Sanchez, K. Twitter suspends Sci-Hub account amid Indian court case – The Verge. The Verge (2021). Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/8/22220738/twitter-sci-hub-suspended-indian-court-case. (Accessed: 17th February 2022)

9. Harper, C. & Baydakova, A. Pirated Academic Database Sci-Hub Is Now on the ‘Uncensorable Web’ | Nasdaq. Nasdaq (2021). Available at: https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/pirated-academic-database-sci-hub-is-now-on-the-uncensorable-web-2021-01-11. (Accessed: 17th February 2022)

10. Principles and Implementation | Plan S. Available at: https://www.coalition-s.org/addendum-to-the-coalition-s-guidance-on-the-implementation-of-plan-s/principles-and-implementation/. (Accessed: 16th February 2022)

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