Scientific Publisher Pay-Walls: an Ethical Nightmare.

Yes. I understand the title of this is relatively inflammatory, but this is a topic that is of particular significance and yet, not-so-surprising, receives very little media coverage. Many don’t know this, but when a researcher publishes an article, the rights of said article, as well as its contents (figures, tables, writing, etc.) are often stripped from the researcher, becoming a property of the publisher. The publisher, or ‘provider’, companies like Elsevier (under the RELX Group, formerly Reed Elsevier), Springer, and Wiley, then bundle the journal, wherein your research is published, with other journals and offer these bundles to libraries on a subscription-basis for outrageous annual feel. To illustrate, in 2003 the University of California – San Francisco boycotted Elsevier after they asked for an annual fee of $90,000 for six Cell Press journals 1. The world of scientific publishing is replete with these instances of price-gouging.



How Did We Get Here?

The practice of periodical publication in the sciences arose in the 17th century. The cultural climate was not conducive to the sharing of scientific discovery. Many scientists and philosophers were deemed heretics and persecuted by religious institutions. Furthermore, communication in the 17th century took much longer (for obvious reasons) meaning that the dissemination of individual discoveries and theories by individual scientists was slow-going – writing letters and waiting for responses. This also posed a problem in instances where two similar or identical discoveries or inventions occur within a small time frame by to different people. Who’s to say which person developed the idea first?

The classic example of this is the development of calculus, separately, by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz 2. Newton claimed to have first developed and written about calculus in the 1660s, but only first published his first works on the subject in 1687 in his Principia, while Leibniz first published a paper using his form of calculus in 1684 entitled Nova Methodus pro Maximus et Minimus. Had the atmosphere surrounding the scientific sphere been more conducive to dissemination, perhaps the two could have collaborated and developed their ideas more efficiently and with less controversy.

Initially, academic discoveries like these were driven by aristocratic patronage, a system wherein individual researchers were funded by individual aristocrats – their discoveries used a source of prestige for the patron. Eventually, the ability for this system to produce new innovations began to stagnate 3. This gave rise to the formation of more formal academies of research, not unlike the ones we see today. Researchers formed research academies, combining their research and amalgamating their aristocratic funding, as a means to facilitate collaboration, hastening discovery. In 1660, with a charter signed by King Charles II, the Royal Society was formed establishing the world’s first formal research society3. Many such institutions were formed in the years following. Many of these societies served their members as well as the public in distributing publications and meeting to discuss theories, experiments, and opinions – free of charge.

The first page of the first edition of the first official research journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published in 1665. Wikipedia

Pay-Walls Are A Disgrace To This Legacy (Part I)

Scientific publishing pay-walls are tramping on the foundations of scientific collaboration developed by the formation of research institutions in the 17th century. Buying out non-profit, open-access journals provided by research institutions, they essentially place finance-based limits on the pace of scientific discovery attainable by researchers. And these prices are rising.

Source: ARL Statistics 2010-2011. Association of Research Libraries, Washington, D.C.

Subscriptions to these journals are typically payed for by the library services of research universities for the use of their researchers. However, the costs of these subscriptions are rising steadily and dramatically. A study conducted by the Association of Research Libraries in 2011 show that serial expenditures (journal subscription costs) had increased by over 400% since 1986, while the amount of amount of monographs (specific journals) increased by only 10%. Sure, these publishers are companies and are at liberty to capitalize where they can. Elsevier responded to claims of over-priced subscription fees by saying that they have to pay their staff and still make a profit. An analyst for Deutsche Bank responded with the following:

“In justifying the margins earned, the publishers, REL included, point to the highly skilled nature of the staff they employ (to pre-vet submitted papers prior to the peer review process), the support they provide to the peer review panels, including modest stipends, the complex typesetting, printing and distribution activities, including Web publishing and hosting.  REL employs around 7,000 people in its Science business as a whole.  REL also argues that the high margins reflect economies of scale and the very high levels of efficiency with which they operate.
We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process.  We are not attempting to dismiss what 7,000 people at REL do for a living.  We are simply observing that if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.”4
I argue that this blatant price-gouging is unethical for a few simples reasons.
First, in the United States, much of the research that is published in journals owned by these providers is funded by government grants. Foundations like the National Institutes of Health, with all of its subsidiaries, and the National Science Foundation are funded by federal tax dollars – public money. It is the obligation of the government to mandate that all research funded by taxpayer money be disseminated, open-access, immediately upon publication. Why should taxpayers contribute to research that does not become accessible to them immediately?
Second, the base of research articles owned by science publishers represents the absolute frontier of human knowledge. The knife-edge between the present and the future. Copyrighting our base knowledge of reality does a disservice to the whole of humanity.

Disgrace (Part II)

The insurrection of for-profit science publishers has brought about an academic atmosphere that poses a few threats to the pace of discovery – the culture of ‘prestige’.

First and foremost, prestige is not the culprit here. Prestige is fantastic, but it should not be defined by what journals one publishes in. Journals like Nature and Cell are keystone prestige journals. Publishing in these is a researcher’ dream. But why? Why should we encourage an atmosphere that promotes finding prestige in the title of the research journal and not the discoveries that are made?

This prestige factor contributes to many of today’s researcher’s hesitance to share their raw findings. The fear of being scooped and having a competitor publish in a prestige journal work based on yours is great and stifles the collaborative nature of science.

The input of second parties is invaluable in discerning between reality and bias, as well it provides new perspectives that may spark revolutionary ideas. A sentiment that is perfectly summarized by this famous quote.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” -Sir Isaac Newton

This stifling is compounded by the fact that these prestige journals nudge out other, smaller journals in terms of visibility. Along this line, a researchers work may be so ahead of its time that it seems insignificant. If Gregor Mendel’s seminal paper on the foundational concepts of genetics, Experiments on Plant Hybridization, had been published in a less obscure research journal than Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn perhaps Charles Darwin or Alfred Wallace or some other researcher would have actually seen it, sparking the concept of evolution much earlier.

This pressure to publish groundbreaking work in prestige journals before someone else can also increase the incidence of confirmation bias. The pressure builds and builds and suddenly a research sees a promising result. The researcher may take this at face value and publish the result in a journal like Nature. Sure, now they have prestige, but the contribution they made to our base of knowledge is false – useless.

Furthermore, if the fallaciousness of the result is taken at face value and not caught, which may very well be the case with the decreased visibility in some parts of the world that may not have the resources to attain these journal subscriptions, it serves to mislead a cavalcade of researchers that are doing work based on false information. Standing on the shoulders of giants is great, but what happens if the giant is looking in the wrong direction?

Progress – Open Science

The concept of conducting ‘open-science’ can take on many forms of magnitude – from free access to published papers to complete access to raw data and research notebooks. Despite the means of performing science, the intended end is the same: increase the pace of discovery by increasing means of collaboration and review. The absence of expensive subscriptions to providers like Elsevier that hoard important research advancements would give those who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources a chance to review groundbreaking research and form new ideas or fact-check existing once – priming the gears of the scientific process.

Already there are several organizations are currently fighting for more open-access practices in research and science publishing. Organizations like Open Knowledge International and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) advocate for not just more open access to science (and other) publications, but for access to data as well as education materials like textbooks. They argue that these materials be should be shared under a Creative Commons (CC-BY) license for the good of the public 5. There are even organizations that provide access to software that streamlines the open-access approach to research such that much of researchers data, protocols, and findings are immediately open access.

Open Access opponents cite that an influx of information on that scale would only serve to confuse researchers and clutter the research sphere. Perhaps this would be the case a few decades ago, but with the development of increasingly simple Internet user interface technologies, this argument no longer holds water. Think – if Wikipedia can be used to hold all of the information it does, then why can’t all of the knowledge and data in a particular field be compiled into its own wiki for scientists in that field to use? The Internet is a remarkable resource in this sense, and it is remarkably under-utilized.

Opponents also cite that the influx of potentially sensitive data to the public sphere poses a danger to the public, fearing the development of weapons of mass destruction or other potentially abhorrent technologies. The classic example given is the research conducted by laboratories in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (separately, but simultaneously) in producing strains of H5N1 avian influenza (avian flu) capable of infection in and transmission between ferrets, a model organism for researching human influenza response 9. If that type of information were made available to the public at large it would certainly leave people vulnerable to bioterror at the hands of some science-savvy villain. I truly sympathize with those who fear this, but I don’t empathize. This information would obviously have to be kept secure in some data bank wherein, to access the information, one would have to gain security clearance. The point is, that information should be available, should we need it, free of cost. Putting a price on that kind of sensitive information in any way leaves room for bribery.

Furthermore, open access publishing platforms like BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) have become more common. These provide researchers an alternative to normal subscription-based publishers like Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley. Critics of these services are quick to point out their very obvious weakness. Many open access publishers charge the researchers a publishing fee as opposed to charging their subscriberssubscription fee. I admit this is not ideal, but it is a step in the right direction. With a few legislative changes, publicly funded research could have their publishing fees included in their grant budget. These publishing fees typically cost anywhere from $500 to $3000 per article and cover editorial and production costs and are relatively minimal as compared to for-profit publishers subscription fees. 6-8

Encouragingly, the United States government has in the past taken steps toward more open access publishing, mandating that all research funded by the NIH (a hefty amount), be subject to complete open access publishing by one year after the initial publication of a research article. See the actual mandate:

The NIH Public Access Policy implements Division F Section 217 of PL 111-8 (Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009).  The law states:

The Director of the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) shall require in the current fiscal year and thereafter that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, that the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.

In summary, I see the transition from for-profit to open-access science publishing formats an inevitability in human and scientific history. The process will be slow-coming, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come at all. I enjoy the thought of a more open future in the science sphere and the steady pace of discovery it has to offer.

For the sake of priority, after writing this post I spotted this short video on the topic and would be remiss if I didn’t share it as it serves to perfectly summarize most of my points.


Open Access Journals & Resources:

BioMed Central
Public Library of Science (PLoS)
Multidisciplinary Publishing Institute (MDPI)
NASA GeneLab
RCSB Protein Data Bank (PDB)

Open Access Advocacy:

Center for Open Science (COS)
Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC)
SPARC Open Access Factsheet
Open Knowledge International
The Open Definition

For-Profit Publishing Company Histories:



  1.  McCook, A. (2003). Researchers boycott Cell Press. Genome Biology, 4(1), spotlight-20031024.
  2. Nielsen, M. A. (2012). Reinventing discovery: the new era of networked science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. David, P. A. (2004). “Understanding the emergence of ‘open science’ institutions: Functionalist economics in historical context”. Industrial and Corporate Change. 13 (4): 571–589
  4. Deutsche Bank AG,  “Reed Elsevier: Moving the Supertanker,” Company Focus: Global Equity Research Report.  (January 11, 2005), 36.
  5. Merkley, R. (2016, April 18). You Pay to Read Research You Fund. That’s Ludicrous. Retrieved from
  6. Owens, S. (2012). Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption?. US News, 23.
  7. Van Noorden, R. (2013). The true cost of science publishing. Nature, 495(7442), 426.
  8. Laakso, M. & Björk, B.-C. BMC Medicine 10, 124 (2012).
  9. Enserink, Martin (November 23, 2011). “Scientists Brace for Media Storm Around Controversial Flu Studies”. Retrieved April 19, 2012.

Published by

Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch has a B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Pathology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He studies the role of chromosomal instability and anueploidy in the progression of cancer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s