Traditional scientific publishers have repeatedly undermined moves towards open access


The Sci-Hub logo.

I recently read a profile of Alexandra Elbakyan and her pirate library, Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub provides free access to a huge number of scientific papers which would otherwise be locked away behind paywalls and only available if you paid a huge fee. The traditional scientific publishers are not happy with that, have sued her several times and continually try to take down her site. I think, given the current realities in science, that Sci-Hub is necessary until the publication process can be reformed.

I have a colleague with whom I talk about publication practices in science and that sort of thing and, while we generally agree, we do differ on our attitudes to traditional publishers. He has often said that he doesn’t want to drive them out of business and would like to work together with them to solve the problems. I have generally maintained that they are antiquated relics from the print age who serve no real purpose, add little to no value to the scientific enterprise and oppose necessary reforms in science. So, it was interesting for me to see some of these issues come up in the profile of Elbakyan.

That same year, the AAP and Elsevier also supported and lobbied in favor of a bill that would have prevented the government from requiring agencies to make research published through a journal Open Access at any point.

It further goes into how mainstream publishers pay lip service to open access publishing, where fees are paid before publication but the work is then free for everyone to access, but then continue to suppress it. The profile describes a site endorsed by many major publishers which is designed to help scientists know how they can share articles but which, due to the way it is structured and what is promoted and what is not, is described as follows.

Overall, the site reads like an attempt to “educate” scientists away from more traditional Open Access infrastructure, and, if not to constrain their sharing, then to redirect it toward for-profit platforms.

So what is the problem? Why does open access matter? Why does Sci-Hub even exist? What is the problem with publishers? It comes down to paywalls, costs and philosophical differences. Many scientists see science as something that is done to advance our knowledge of the world and provide a benefit to mankind. If that research is locked away behind a paywall then it is not easy to access and doesn’t provide the benefits that it is meant to.

The same thing could be said about many things that we have to pay for. Why should science be different? Firstly, a lot of science is paid for by public funds and then you have to pay again with public funds to read it. That means you are paying for the same thing twice.

Secondly, the money is not going to the people who funded the research and it’s not going to the scientists who did the research; it’s only going to the publishers of the research. Sophien Kamoun, at The Sainsbury Laboratory, described scientific publishing like this:

Imagine we have to pay to enter the restaurant, pay to access the kitchen, pay to cook our dinner, and then also pay to eat the dinner.

Thirdly, the fees that have to be paid to publish and read scientific articles are unnecessarily and unreasonably high.


An extract from a PHD Comics strip.

According to Springer Nature, it costs them € 10 000 – 30 000 to publish an article in some of their journals. If that were true, it would suggest that they are running a massively inefficient business. However, it is just plain false. That number comes from dividing their profits by the number of articles that they publish. It is really the amount of money they receive per article!  The actual cost of publishing a scientific article varies from a couple of Euros to around € 500, depending on several factors. This massive cost inflation is a major source of friction. To quote Björn Brembs, based at the University of Regensburg:

If the scholarly community accepts this price as reasonable, it needs to be prepared to explain to the tax-payer, why it is justified to use public funds to pay a private company such as Springer Nature less than ~€500 to publish a scholarly article in one of their journals and then an additional ~€29,500 for cost items such as ineffectively rejecting articles, making sure the ‘published’ articles remain difficult to access for most ordinary tax payers and the salaries of the company’s executives and lobbyists.

I do not think it is reasonable. And neither do many others. Funders are leading the push towards making open access a reality for all research and the biggest discussion at the moment is around Plan S. This plan, backed by several national funders in Europe, is now demanding immediate open access for all research they fund by the beginning of 2020. I rather like one of the sentences in the published announcement.

However, our collective duty of care is for the science system as a whole, and researchers must realise that they are doing a gross disservice to the institution of science if they continue to report their outcomes in publications that will be locked behind paywalls.

Of course, given the amounts of money involved, traditional publishers are not entirely happy with this. One of their more ridiculous complaints is that they need more time. Springer Nature suggested a phased transition approach would help. This is blatant stalling. They cannot seriously suggest that they have not had time to think about these issues and come up with a plan. They seemed similarly unprepared when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said all the research they funded had to published as open access in the beginning of 2017 and discussions around open access have been ongoing for many years!

In fact, Springer Nature is happy to tout that it’s the “world’s largest open access publisher” and that:

In early 2004, at the height of the debate on open access and STM publishing, Springer began looking into a system that would accommodate those that wished to publish open access. In the spirit of experimentation that is part of Springer’s corporate culture, Springer Open Choice was launched.

It’s been 15 years! How much longer should scientists be expected to wait for open access and true reform in scientific publishing? The traditional publishers have made it clear that they are only interested in profit. Their primary goal is not the dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of humanity. If it were not clear from Springer Nature’s Change the World event, then it should be clear from their action, or inaction, over the last 15 years. The way science is done needs to change. If the traditional publishers refuse to change, then science should leave them in the past.


4 thoughts on “Traditional scientific publishers have repeatedly undermined moves towards open access

  1. I think it made sense before the internet. To share scientific knowledge required printing and distribution and then the journals and publishing houses made sense. With the internet though, it’s easy and cheap to publish and share knowledge. Now it’s time to change how we do things. I am also a big fan of Plan S as nothing is likely to happen without a big push.

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