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Europe has a plan to force academic publishers to make research free to read

It costs a fortune to read scientific research. Pressure is mounting for that to change.

Who should pay the costs of academic publishing?
Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

If you’ve ever done academic research, you know the frustration: You find the perfect study or analysis, only it’ll cost you around $30 to access it.

Universities spend millions every year on academic journal subscriptions for their students and faculty. And while these costs may be manageable for some, they are prohibitive for many less wealthy scholars and institutions around the world. A 2016 article in Science described how a PhD candidate in Iran would have had to spend $1,000 a week (money he didn’t have) just to read the papers he needed for his studies. In the US, taxpayers spend $140 billion every year supporting research they can’t easily access.

Indeed, most of the world’s scientific knowledge is still locked behind expensive paywalls. But pressure is building — via the rise of academic paper pirating, and the increasing availability of pre-publication manuscripts — for publishers to change their business model. Now, a coalition of scientific funding agencies in Europe finally wants to tear these paywalls down.

A group of European science funders wants all papers published, free of charge, for the public to read

The clumsily named cOAlition S (“OA” is for “open access.” The “S” for science, or solution) is a group of science funding agencies from 11 European countries. Altogether, these funders — which include UK Research and Innovation and the Research Council of Norway — spend $8.8 billion per year on grants to scientists for their research. That big financial footprint gives them some power to stipulate conditions for accepting the grant money.

Here’s what they want: By 2020, these funders will mandate that anyone who gets money from them must publish their results in a journal without a paywall. Private funders, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, already stipulate any papers that come from their grants must be open access. The cOAlition S is following their lead.

Currently, some journals make articles open access after a period of some months after publication. (Studies funded by the NIH, which spends about $30 billion on grants a year, are currently released to the public in this delayed manner.) But the cOAlition S won’t stand for this either. The studies, their declaration states, “cannot be monetized in any way.”

“Monetizing the access to new and existing research results is profoundly at odds with the ethos of science,” the cOAlition S explains on its website. “There is no longer any justification for this state of affairs to prevail.”

The plan would bar the scientists receiving the funding from top journals, which currently have paywalls, like Nature and Science. Only around 15 percent of journals worldwide run an open access model.

Scientific communities are increasingly bypassing publishers

There are other forces at play that may put pressure on the publishing industry to increase access. One is the rise of pirating academic papers.

In 2011, Russia-based neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan founded the website Sci-Hub, which has grown to host more than 50 million academic papers. Elbakyan claims this is nearly all the paywalled scientific knowledge that exists in the world. These papers are free for anyone to view and download. The service, we should note, is illegal. But it is extremely popular.

In 2016, Science conducted an analysis of Sci-Hub’s web traffic (with the cooperation of Elbakyan). It found that 3 million unique IP addresses downloaded a total of 28 million documents in a six-month period between September and March 2016. And the number of users could actually be even higher “because thousands of people on a university campus can share the same IP address,” according to Science.

Many of these users came from the United States. But a great many others came from poorer nations like Tunisia and India, where the biggest hurdle to accessing scientific information may be high journal costs.

Another trend: Scientists are increasingly publishing pre-publications versions of their studies (often called pre-prints). These study drafts are often nearly identical to finished, published, studies. And they’re free to access.

The problem is that, often, these studies have not yet been peer-reviewed. But advocates of preprints say they’re a net benefit to science. “They increase the visibility of research, and sooner,” the Center for Open Science explains. Pre-print studies can also be debated in public, and have their flaws ironed out, before they ever make it into a journal.

Would this really change academic publishing? Open access costs often get kicked to the authors.

But will this group of European funders, which represents only a small slice of research funding worldwide, really force journals to adopt open access? Perhaps. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds about $4.6 billion worth of science every year. And when they mandated the science generated from these grants be published in open access journals, Science started an 18-month pilot program publishing open access.

Additionally, Nature reports the New England Journal of Medicine and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “quietly changed their policies last year to offer a permanent OA publishing route for Gates grant holders.”

The cOAlition S funders have an even larger financial footprint than the Gates Foundation, and presumably, could put similar pressure on publishers.

Another thing to note: These changes wouldn’t necessarily destroy the business of scientific publishing. Sure, universities pay a lot of money so that their students and faculties need access to research. Costs per college vary. But in 2012, even the very well-endowed Harvard University complained that their $3.5 million a year subscriptions bill was “untenable.”

Someone will have to pay for the peer review, and the staff that runs the journals. Open access journals, like PLOS, often pass on the costs of publishing to study authors. It costs an author $3,000 to publish in PLOSBiology, for example. And the Gates Foundation paid the publisher of Science $100,000 for a year of publishing their papers un-paywalled.

It’s also possible that scientists will increasingly bypass the journal system, directly publishing their papers outside the traditional system of peer review (the benefits of which are hotly debated).

So science, overall, is becoming more open and accessible, despite journals’ continued reliance on paywalls. The question now is: Will more journals catch up to the trend?