Illustration: Hanlin Cheng

“New Study Says That Chocolate is Good for You!”

“Scientists Find Correlation Between Dexterity and Income!”

You hear this on the news almost every day. Whether we understand it or not, science has become an integral part of our society, advancing us to a place which could not have been imagined just a few hundred years ago.

Yet, as brilliant as some of its stars have been, science has only come this far through the dissemination of knowledge. It is hardly a coincidence that the rapid advancement of scientific discovery in the past few centuries has come alongside great strides in communication and globalisation. Without reading the work of Max Planck and others before him, Einstein would have amounted to little more than a clever patent officer in Switzerland. However, the repositories of all this work—scientific journals—are becoming increasingly inaccessible to many of the Einsteins of the world.

The vast majority of scientific information is published in scientific journals. Most require paid subscriptions, with top journals such as Nature or Science costing in the hundreds of dollars for a yearly subscription [1], while individual articles can at times cost upwards of $30 [2]. These high costs have made it increasingly difficult for both researchers and the general public to access scientific knowledge. In 2012, there was a spike in awareness after Harvard Library warned that it could no longer afford price hikes imposed by large publishers, which bill it around $3.5 million each year [3]. This problem is many times worse for institutions in less affluent nations, which cannot afford large databases of journals for their researchers.

Even more concerning, however, is that these high costs are not justifiable. The publishing companies themselves contribute little to the total cost that goes into publishing a paper. The research, which makes up the bulk of the cost, is paid for by the institution supporting the researcher. Even the academics who edit the papers often work for free. In reality, the publishers are paying for formatting, some proofreading, and the actual printing of a paper—seemingly little compared to the work already done. Yet, the average profit margin for a publishing company is around 20 to 30 percent: a respectable, if not impressive, number when compared with many other fields. These are even higher for larger publishers, such as Reed Elsevier and Wiley [4].

Highly prestigious journals may argue that part of their value is the selectivity of their content; Nature, for example, only published around 8% of the articles that it received in 2011 [4]. By being so selective, readers who purchase these journals will know that the studies contained are worth reading—an essential asset when there are millions of articles published each year to choose from. However, this could likely be done with more ease and effectiveness by using a web-based service. Scientists could search for the most-read studies, which would arguably be a better indication of importance than publication in a prestigious journal.

The issue of overpriced journals has been around for some time, but solutions do exist. The most promising one is the open-access model. Publishers such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and BioMed Central offer open-access journals, where authors pay for publishing fees and readers can access their work for free. Estimates place the average cost for an author per article at $660 [4], an amount which can either be taken from a research grant or paid by a researcher’s institution. In exchange for this, the work becomes freely available to the public.

Unfortunately, companies have been slow to adopt this model, and the issue persists. Meanwhile, a less scrupulous, but perhaps more effective, solution has come in the form of Sci-Hub. Started in 2011 to provide free access to scientific journals for people who could otherwise not afford them, it has grown into a juggernaut that supplies millions of published articles to its users worldwide [5]. It is very popular in countries such as Iran or Venezuela, where a lack of funding has left universities with poor access to scientific journals, though it also has users in western countries. Of course, publishers are less than enthused about its rise, and in October 2015 a New York judge ruled that the website violated Elsevier’s copyright and ordered its domain shut down [6]. However, as its servers are located in Russia, the website quickly resurfaced and continues to be used.

Although websites such as Sci-Hub do not offer acceptable long-term solutions due to their legal questionability, they serve to highlight the extent of the problem. Many of Sci-Hub’s users face the choice of abandoning their research, or resorting to illegal methods. When the system is so flawed that even the top universities of a nation cannot afford access to research, it is clear that something has to be done. A viable solution exists in the form of open-access publishing, but publishers have been reluctant to switch to this approach—perhaps to avoid change, or perhaps due to simple greed. However, we cannot afford to leave things as they are. Science is not just another commodity to be sold for a profit; it serves as a sign of our progress as a species. When it remains locked behind walls of money, the advancement of human knowledge slows to a halt.

[1] http://scienceblogs.com/digitalbio/2012/01/09/how-much-does-it-cost-to-get-a/

[2] https://www.sciencemag.org/members/order-article-or-issue

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/apr/24/harvard-university-journal-publishers-prices

[4] http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

[5] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/whos-downloading-pirated-papers-everyone

[6]http://www.nature.com/news/pirate-research-paper-sites-play-hide-and-seek-with-publishers-1.18876

Op-eds are opinion articles that reflect the views of the author, but not necessarily those of the Editorial Board or of The Reckoner as a whole. Please note this important distinction when reading this article.