Anybody working in academia for the last 10-20 years is aware of the movement toward open access publishing. For those of you “on the outside”, the traditional model for publishing scientific articles has been through professional journals who make their money via subscription fees paid by universities and research institutions. In the Internet Age, those subscriptions aren’t for print journals, but rather for online access to the articles. As a consequence, the large majority of articles in legacy journals, including the big prestige journals like Nature, Science, and Cell, sit behind paywalls. A layperson would have to pay a shockingly high fee to access any of these articles via the Internet. Most of us gain access through a University library. For me — at a major research university — I generally have to be on campus, physically, to gain access. There are ways around that — for instance using the University’s VPN — but they are finicky and don’t always work.
There are lots of problems with this publication model. The most obvious is that most University research is publicly funded, suggesting that the results should be available to the public for no additional charge — since, of course, they already paid for it once with their taxes. Another problem is that it establishes profit-seeking entities, and possibly politically motivated bad actors, as gatekeepers of what gets published — a problem compounded by the anonymous peer-review process, and one I intend to revisit more thoroughly elsewhere. But perhaps the biggest problem is that it impedes access to the literature to the very scientists working in the field — slowing research, and increasing the likelihood of labs going in wrong directions or duplicating effort because of incomplete knowledge of what’s already been published.
I’m writing this right now, though, because it seems ESPECIALLY egregious to me that the paywalls remain up during the current coronavirus crisis. Basically the entire scientific community is trying to work from home right now, and one of the only things we can do is write. But my capacity to write papers or prepare grant applications is hindered pretty seriously by not being able to reliably access other people’s recent research. Add to that the fact that I am also trying to teach undergraduates, and I enjoy using current research for that purpose, but neither they nor I can easily access the most recent papers thanks to ubiquitous paywalls (I’m looking at you, PNAS).
Full disclosure, I’m an officer in a professional society that makes its living to a large degree off of subscriptions to its journal, a journal that sits behind a paywall right now. We justify it by the fact that all of that revenue is used to bolster the careers of young scientists in the field and to subsidize an annual meeting to get all of us together in one place to science like crazy for a week. That’s a pretty good argument on a typical day — but this isn’t a typical day. We are living through an extraordinary time, a time when almost none of the things we normally spend that money on are happening. There’s no national meeting this year, nobody is getting any research done in our field, and basically everything is on hold until further notice. In my opinion, all of those paywalls should be dropped, for our journal and for all other journals — ESPECIALLY the big prestige journals — for the duration of this crisis.
Unfortunately, these decisions are largely in the hands of multinational corporate publishing houses, not the scientists who provide them with content.