by Cesare Rocchi

Research Papers are already payed for

by Cesare Rocchi

Tags: research

I spent almost ten years in the academia and I am very familiar with the problem.

I am interested in a research paper but it’s behind a paywall.

The institute I was working for subscribed to many publishers and associations, including ACM and IEEE. So, as long as I was in the office I could download papers.

Access to publications was never a problem to me, until a struggling student asked me a copy of a paper which I co-authored. I was flattered and I sent the PDF right away. It didn’t even occur to me that I was committing a felony. Yes, one of my papers, which I co-authored, wasn’t essentially mine. I gave up all the rights I had the second I submitted it to the publisher. They just gave me ten pre-prints that I could freely distribute. At the time I didn’t care, because my goal was just publishing quality papers.

As an outsider I clearly see the problem now, and the flawed system behind it. I am not familiar with the flow of funds in the NSF but in Europe it works like this (simplified):

  • citizens pay taxes
  • states collect taxes
  • part of the taxes are sent to the EU
  • the EU decides that a percentage of that money is for research.
  • the EU creates research grants
  • research institutes and Universities apply for grants with proposals
  • The winner of the grant has money to work on the proposed research and publish papers

This means that, as a EU citizen, I have already payed for research papers. I could understand if a publisher charged me for shipping fees of a printed paper, but charging for a PDF doesn’t make sense.

Some researchers started a boycott initiative a few years ago but things didn’t change a lot. It doesn’t mean we should stop.

One of the motivations provided by publishers to justify the paywall is the following:

The largest companies, like Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer and Wiley, typically have profit margins of over 30 percent, which they say is justified because they are curators of research, selecting only the most worthy papers for publication. Moreover, they orchestrate the vetting, editing and archiving of articles.

Kate Murphy for NYTimes source

Fair enough. That problem should be solved when the research grant is issued, not when it comes to publishing. If the EU performs the curation when assigning the grants, there’s no need of another “filter” at publication time.

We can beat the drum and spread the “research papers should be free” message. That’s necessary but not enough. Another way is to gently provide a copy of your papers if somebody kindly asks you via email. You won’t bankrupt the publisher.