Breaking the (pay)wall

Why is it so expensive to access the results of publicly-funded research – a fact that makes research much more difficult if not inpossible in remote areas or poor countries? A new documentary shows the role of publishers in „business of scholarhips“ works – and a new initiative by european research institutions tries to save the concept of open access

When I started studying many years ago, I read, like many others, the book about how to write a thesis by Umberto Eco. The book, written in the 1970s, deals with the problem of how to access the literature necessary to write about a specific topic – and is shows that it was very common thiry years ago that students or researchers had to travel all over the country (or even to another country) to search the libraries for the books and articles they needed. While this may still be true for people working on very special topics or doing research in archives, for most others, with the technical development of the last decades, this could indeed be over.

It could. From a technical point of view, it would be no problem to access research articles from all over the world even in the smallest library. But in fact, the opposite is true. A few days ago I talked to a friend living in a remote area of Europe, with no bigger city around – to get access to the research paper she needs for work and research, she actually still has to travel by train or plane to the next university city or even the capital – because just these librairies have access to the journals she needs, and because they can not open to remote-access. People living in poorer countries, with not public librairies or more-or-less well-founded universities around may not even have the chance to do so.

It’s a question of money: The subscriptions to imporant journals can cost thousands or hundred-thousands Euro, a single research article can be at 30 or 40 Euro- These articles are written  by publicly-funded researchers and reviewers, but huge publishers own the intellectual property rights. The documentary Paywall – the Business of Scholarhip by filmmaker Jason Schmitt shows how much private publishing companies profit from the system – Elsevier, the documentary shows, has a profit margin of 35 to 40 percent, more than companies like Apple.

Paywall – The Business of Scholarship – the full movie can be openly accessed on Vimeo

This issue is not new – since 20 years supporters try to promote a concept and culture of open access. It had a form of success – but not in the way as it was planned (or hoped for). Today, most big publishers also offer an ‚open access‘ options for scientists who want to publish their research – for a much higher price. Because the fact, that an article is freely available online, usually garantees a wider audience. New platforms like researchgate have come up to connect researchers with each other – and to share publications within the network for free.

Plan S – an initiative of reserach institutions for open access. Picture: Max Planck, Plan S

In September several european research institutions  – among the two biggest, UK Research and Innovation and the French National Research Agency – launched the Plan S. Plan S is an initiative for open access: Whoever gets funding from the participating institutions, is required to publish open access – the results have to available to the public. A step forward? It is not as clear as it seems, as an interview (german) in the radio station Deutschlandfunk shows. Requiring researchers to publish open access will simply mean that they have to pay additional fees to publish. To avoid this the Plan S includes a limited support – there are limited funds available for the publication of the results of research projects. But what in case the publishers want more? Do the researchers – who have an interest to publish in a high-rank journal – have to pay the difference themselves? Search for additional funding for publication? Although the general idea goes into the right direction, the details will decide about if the initiative will save the idea of open access – or if it will just be a additional opportunity for the publishers to make profit.

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