The Price of Knowledge – Scientific Papers Held for Ransom

Picture of By Andrada Pop

By Andrada Pop

If you have ever spent hours tracking down an elusive pdf version of a scientific paper, read articles you needed for your courses that were unavailable in the UvA library, had to pay to read for a research paper, or the UvA VPN failed you when you needed it the most… Rest assured, you are not alone. Welcome to the club of Academia Survivors! You are safe here.

Although our university offers a decent catalogue of research resources, this can fall short at times, leaving students to resort to either piracy or to pay out of pocket for access to scientific papers. And since the prices to read such papers start at $15 (the average price being double), it’s not that hard to see why the first option is more popular with students.

I am not here to judge or hold any student responsible for doing their best to work around a system that is not working for them. Piracy of scientific papers exists, but why?

The Short Answer: Paywalls. 

Paywalls are a simple way for online publications to monetize their websites, and we see this quite often when it comes to news. 

As we know, with the Internet news publications had to adapt their revenue intakes to this new environment, and news subscriptions emerged to keep journalism a viable career. 

The prices for news subscriptions are not extravagant, with the New York Times’ student subscription being €2 per month, a price that is equitable when in need of quality news. 

And that doesn’t mean that one must pay to get some news. There are still articles free of charge, or articles that can be read without a subscription.

However, with scientific publications, things are a bit different. Yes, they too have paywalls that restrict the access to research papers, but they don’t have journalists they need to pay. With a margin of profit of almost 40%, meaning reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue, publishing scientific articles is a highly profitable business. And those numbers only reflect one company, Elsevier, that surpassed the profit margin of the giants of technology – Apple, Google and Amazon.

If you worry that the scientists that publish their research in these journals would be scammed out of their money every time someone pirates their articles, don’t. In some cases, it is the scientists themselves that have to pay these companies to have their research featured in their journals.

Perhaps now the problem that lies beneath the structure of scientific publishing is clear, and the issue of paywalls is just a sip of the tea brewing in the scientific communitea.

‘Human beings are curious by nature’ said Aristotle, and thus, denying access to satisfying the human need for knowledge could be seen as a violation of our rights.

Why Should This Make You Mad?

‘Human beings are curious by nature’ said Aristotle, and thus, denying access to satisfying the human need for knowledge could be seen as a violation of our rights.

That could sound like a stretch when we think just of our experience as students. Paying $15 for access to a scientific article might not break the camel’s back in Western European countries, but the same cannot be said about the world. This creates an uneven access system that follows profit and not the expansion of knowledge. Where does that leave us?

Sci-Hub: Bringing Down The Wall, One Pirated Article After Another  

Sci-Hub is a website that streamlined the process of, well, pirating scientific articles. When a user searches a specific article through Sci-Hub, the website first looks it up in its database. If the article is not found, no worries, Sci-Hub can bypass paywalls by using passwords ‘donated’ by anonymous academics

There is no question about the legality of this website. It’s illegal. But there is a question on why so many people, students and researchers alike, have become so fed up with the system to come up with new ways to subvert it. It seems like scientists and scientific journals have a co-dependent relationship, in which researchers need to be published in prestigious journals to further their careers, and the journals need the scientists to keep producing and peer-reviewing so that they continue to publish content.

What’s Next?

Whether we like it or not, we are part of the scientific community, at least until we graduate. And as such, the problems that arise in this field may directly affect our studies.

What we can do is become more informed on the price of knowledge, by following the trail of the money the publishing business rolls in, by discussing solutions such as Sci-Hub and by looking at the state of facts and how this landscape of research can affect any progress we hope to make in science. To do that, you can follow this new series of articles that focuses on the current issues with the scientific community.

Cover: Jason Leung 

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