If you’re a STEM student at the University of Connecticut, or really a student in any discipline, it is likely that you have had to utilize online journal articles at some point. Whether this is in order to complete readings for a class, compile evidence to support a paper or review literature before writing a thesis, using online journals is an extremely common occurrence for students at a top-tier research institution like UConn. However, along with this experience of using research journals to aid in learning, there also comes the unpleasant experience of being prevented from doing this because you don’t have access to this research.
Hitting these “paywalls,” as they have come to be known, is probably just as common as doing research itself. Any student that has ever used Google Scholar or the library databases knows that sometimes you just don’t have access to all of the knowledge you want to possess for a given project, simply because there aren’t enough funds to pay for every single journal out there. What most students don’t know is that the thousands of dollars required to buy these journals don’t go where most would expect it to go.
When you buy a book, the author, publisher, editors and agents are often some of the people that benefit from the book’s profits. However, when you subscribe to journals, the money paid to the publisher is not given to the authors and researchers of the articles they are publishing, nor is it given to the individuals editing the articles. Instead, the money goes directly into the pocket of the publisher. So you might be wondering how do the authors and editors get paid. Well, they don’t. As these journals are peer-reviewed, editing is done on a volunteer basis by other experts in a given field, and most research is funded by external sources, often through government funding. So technically, the money researchers are making is actually coming from us—the taxpayers.
As scientific publishers don’t have to pay the people creating their content or the people editing their content, there are many fewer expenses involved in keeping these publishers running. This, coupled with the fact that subscriptions to these journals are so extremely expensive, means that scientific publishers are turning over an enormous profit each year. Elsevier, one of the largest and most well-known publishers of scientific journals, had a profit margin of 36 percent in 2010 which grew to 39 percent in 2013. To put that into perspective, Amazon had a profit margin of 4.33 percent in 2018.
With companies like Elsevier making billions of dollars off research that most ordinary taxpayers funded, is it fair for us to be locked out of research due to not having a subscription to the journal? Many would argue no, this isn’t fair. However, with Elsevier and other big-name publishers controlling much of the research world, it is difficult to find ways to stop supporting these companies without being at a disadvantage due to a lack of access to current research. One solution that is growing in popularity is the use of open-access journals—both for those that are publishing their work and those looking to read it. These are journals that are not-for-profit and allow free access to research in a variety of fields. Of course, as these journals are only just beginning to grow in popularity, some are concerned with the quality of the research since they don’t have the same type of prestige that certain other journals do. Additionally, as open-access journals are relatively new, they may be limited in the variety of articles that they provide access to. However, neither the prestige or amount of research available from open-access sources will improve unless more people begin using them in place of those run by the scientific publishing giants.
The University of California school system decided to take it one step further in the fight against Elsevier by refusing to renew their contract with the company if they did not see changes in the way the company charged for journal access. At this point, the UCs and Elsevier have not officially ended their contract and the schools have been placed on an extended contract while they continue to negotiate with the company. However, the very idea that a large university system would think to pull out of their contract shows that it is possible to stand up to these publishing powerhouses.
There is no easy way to fix this problem between scientific publishers and consumers of research. Unfortunately, it is difficult for students and academics to altogether refuse journals like those published by Elsevier in fear that it will hurt their careers, but continuing this shift towards alternate sources like open-access journals is a good place to start.
Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.