As a naïve young scientist, I always assumed that all of the knowledge accrued in science and research would be open to me, so long as I knew where and how to look. We are taught that sharing our experimental data with others spreads knowledge, helps fuel medical breakthroughs, drives space travel, develops engineering technologies, assists in ecosystem conservation, and generally furthers all science and technology fields. This is one of the main reasons we give talks to groups and have scientific conferences. This is the type of interaction that amazed me, and I assumed it would be true in the scientific literature as well.
Imagine my surprise when, as a young undergraduate working on her first research project, I found a perfect paper for my project through PubMed (basically the medical research equivalent to Google), only to find out that access to it would cost $35! I set the abstract aside and continued my search, ultimately only gaining access to one of the ten papers I needed.
We call this the PayWall. We can see the abstract, which is a short description of the paper, but we can’t access the paper unless we pay for it. Given the way scientific publication works these days, this is surprising to me.
You see, when you try to publish your research, after you and the other authors have written up the paper and generated the beautiful illustrations you think will be necessary to tell readers about what you discovered, you go through a series of steps:
- The paper gets peer reviewed if it doesn’t get rejected. This means that it is sent to scientists in your field to make sure you have done the research correctly and are providing new knowledge to the field.
- The paper gets sent back to you, usually with revisions and a last-minute experiment or two that the reviewers think you should do. (Reviewer 2 is almost always the culprit.) Sometimes the paper gets rejected and you have to try a new journal.
- You resubmit the paper to the journal with revisions, and they send it for peer review again.
- Once the paper is accepted by the journal, it goes through type-setting, and your figures are updated.
- Finally, you or your lab pays a fee to have the paper published, sometimes several thousand dollars and often even higher if you want to use color photos.
- Then, if your paper is not in an open-access format, your published paper sits behind the PayWall where anyone who wants to read it would have to pay the journal or publishing group to get it.
Wait a minute… I pay the journal to publish my paper, and then they also charge the people who want to read it for access to it? The fees used to be used for publishing the printed copies of the journal, but I don’t think I’ve read a printed journal copy of a paper since high school. To me, this does not make sense.
If I can’t access these papers because I can’t afford to spend $400 for ten, how are scientists churning out gigantic projects and dissertations that require experiments based on research from hundreds of papers?
And how in the world is anyone seeing this important and ground-breaking research?
How many discoveries were on the brink of a cure for diabetes or a formula for the next rocket fuel, but were never seen by the person who could propel the project forward because of the PayWall?
Finally, how would someone in the public who is interested in learning about some aspect of science that isn’t common knowledge going to get any information?
It turns out that most major research universities pay hefty subscription fees to scientific publishing groups like Elsevier, Nature, Science, and Cell, which then give anyone with credentials at that school access to their collections of papers. However, I was at a small, public research university that only subscribed to a few journals when I was completing my first research project. Even the scientists at large universities struggled with the PayWall. If you didn’t have a friend with a subscription whom you could beg to download the paper, you could try taking to twitter and posting the name of the paper with the hashtag, “#ICanHazPDF.” If nobody came to your aid, you were just out of luck.
“Wow,” I thought, “I wish there was a LimeWire for Science Papers.”
LimeWire was a program that was commonly used by teenagers and college students to download music for free. This music was purchased by someone else and illegally uploaded to share with others. Ultimately, LimeWire was shut down after a legal battle with record companies, and now we buy music or listen to Pandora or Spotify.
It turns out that there is a LimeWire equivalent for scientific papers. SciHub was founded in 2011 by graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, who decided to do something about the paywall that plagues scientists all over the world. A computer technology and neuroscience researcher in Kazakhstan, she became frustrated that she could not access the papers she needed. Thus she founded SciHub, which uses a variety of methods to obtain papers for its users, including accessing existing paper repositories around the world and using a credentialed user’s information to retrieve the papers behind the paywall.
Unsurprisingly, large publishers are not happy with this. The original sci-hub.org domain was taken down in October 2015 as a result of a lawsuit in progress through the publisher Elsevier, though the site is still available at sci-hub.io and other domains. The publishers claim that use of SciHub is an invasion of privacy for the users, as it uses their information to get the papers. Still, scientists around the world are praising it, and nearly 90% of those that filled out a recent survey at Science said they believed that downloading pirated papers, like those gained through SciHub, is not wrong.
Many believe that the publication system is broken, believing, as Esteban told Science, “Journal paywalls are an example of something that works in the reverse direction, making communication less open and efficient.” If scientists are charged to publishresearch that, even before publishing fees, has already cost an incredible amount of time and research dollars to complete, journals should allow all articles to be open access articles. Some journals, such as PLOS-ONE, already do this, but most either do not offer the option or charge a higher fee to do so. Funding for research is tight, so many scientists forgo paying these extra fees, leaving their papers behind the paywall. The good news for scientists who are unable to access papers normally is that, unlike LimeWire, Alexandra Elbakyan says SciHub isn’t going anywhere, despite the fact that she’s been forced into hiding to avoid the possibility of arrest.
What do you think, Science ACEs? Should all scientific research be open access once it is published, or do journals have the right to make readers pay for access?
How would you make research articles more accessible to the masses?
Biotechie (Social Media Manager)
Biotechie is the Science ACEs social media manger (@scienceaces and facebook.com/scienceaces). She is a rising 3rd year PhD student researching cell fundtion, cholesterol, and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.