Paywalls in Science – A Problem we Need to Fix

Yesterday scientists came together on twitter to be irritated by paywalls in science, and expressed our frustration in the form of small, humorous poems, with the hashtag #ElsevierValentines. A collection of them can be found here.

Later on, a friend told me that, along with mental health discrimination, paywalls are one of the biggest problems in modern science. I am inclined to agree, although I think one of the biggest problems facing science today is publication bias. But that’s a different topic.

So what are paywalls, why are they so prevalent and why is it so irritating when you come up against them?

Wikipedia defines a paywall as “a system that prevents Internet users from accessing webpage content without a paid subscription.” In science, we most commonly hit them when looking for scientific papers to research a potential study topic or find evidence to back up something interesting that we have found. It happens less often if you are a member of an institution which subscribes to journals, but it stills happens irritatingly often, and can induce extreme emotion such as these below.

flips table headdesk it makes me want to kill everyone in this room

So why are paywalls so prevalent in science?

Scientists want to publish their research papers in journals that have a high impact factor. They want their papers to be read, to be discussed, to be cited and used in further research. That’s fine. That’s not where the problem lies.

Many journals which have high impact factors are produced by companies such as Elsevier, Nature Publishing Group and Wiley, and in order to make a profit out of science, these companies provide their journals on a subscription-only basis. These companies are hugely powerful within science – Elsevier alone publishes 250,000 articles in 2,000 journals every year. This is not a problem if you’re associated with an institution which has a subscription to these companies. I am lucky enough to be part of the University of Exeter, and I am fortunate that this university buys subscriptions to all of the above companies and more. However, those are not the only ones out there, and universities cannot buy subscriptions to everything – it would be prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, if you are not associated with an institution, you are mostly left to fend for yourself, and research may be limited to open-access papers. Hours can be spent searching for papers which are available as pdfs online, or finding someone who can make it available to you. This is not just hugely irritating – and it is, enormously so – it’s also demoralising and wastes time.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the price of subscriptions to journals has been progressively increasing over the last few decades – and steeply. Some say that the price of journal subscriptions has risen at nearly 4x the rate of inflation since 1986, whilst other say that the cost of journal subscriptions in 2002 was on average 600% higher than in 1984. Whatever the true figure is for the present day cost of subscriptions, it is clear that such price hikes are unsustainable. Universities and institutions are being forced to cancel subscriptions because they simply cannot afford the cost, and those unaffiliated to an institution are often forced to make do without subscriptions at all.

It is somewhat of a dilemma for scientists looking to publish their work. It is no crime to want your paper published in a high impact journal, where it will receive lots of attention. After all, if science is not discussed, not read, not received by other scientists around the world, it cannot evolve, the information we gather will not be shared, and it essentially becomes useless.

However, by publishing work and then hiding it behind a paywall many cannot afford to climb over, we are left with a situation that is not dissimilar to a world in which science is not published at all.

It is a practice which has been described by science journalists as immoral, and it is easy to see the reasoning behind this; by publishing work and locking it behind a paywall, it is being denied to the very people who can do things with it – other scientists. It wastes time, money and work, of both the publishing scientists and the scientific community hoping to read their peer’s work. And it needs fixing.


In the meantime, allow me to direct you to a number of illuminating articles on the subject.

Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral

Time to tear down the paywalls?

Let’s shine a light on paywalls that deny open access to scientific research

Why is science behind a paywall?

bp;dr – behind paywall, didn’t read – the internet’s next new acronym


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