The indefensible price of accessing the giant’s shoulders

Fourteen thousand three hundred and seventy five US dollars. That’s how much it would have cost me to access each of the 575 references cited in my PhD. It’s a ludicrous figure. About US$25 per article. Calculated using the average pay-per-view cost of the top 100 journals in 2014. Of course, it could be argued that this figure doesn’t account for the money that could have been saved by bundling purchases into annual subscriptions. On the other hand, it also doesn’t account for the thousand or so articles that were read, but never made it to the final cut. So let’s call it even. It’s an abstract figure. For me access to these articles was covered by the annual journal subscriptions purchased by the University of Melbourne. For researchers at smaller universities around the world, the costs to access these journal are prohibitively high. Leaving researchers in the dark and the articles locked behind paywalls.

The absurd world of scientific publishing

In order for you to get a decent understanding of how infuriating this situation is, let’s first take a quick walk through the embarrassingly absurd system that it is modern scientific publishing:

The taxpayers pay their taxes. The government takes a portion of these taxes and funds research. The scientist does the research. They write the research into an article and submits the article to a journal. The journal sends the paper out for peer review, an unpaid process where 3 independent scientists read and critique the paper to make sure everything’s above board. If peer review approves the article, the journal accepts it and agrees to publish it with the following two provisos: 1. That the scientist sign over the copyright of the article to the journal, and 2. That the scientist pays the journal to publish the article (usually between US$500-1000). If the scientist agrees to all this then the journal publishes the article behind a paywall where it will cost somewhere in the ballpark of US$25 to access it.

That’s right. The taxpaying public pay scientists to pay publishing houses to lock their research behind a paywall.

Now, on the scale of a single article, you could be mistaken for thinking the system was just a touch backwards, but not altogether cataclysmic. So let’s change the scale. In 2009, it was estimated that there were over 50 million scholarly research articles in existence dating as far back as 1665. We can add to that the estimated 1.8 million articles published across 28,000 journals every year and suddenly we’re talking about more than 60 million articles. And access to all this research doesn’t come cheap.

The financial cost of restricted access

“An institution the size of University of Melbourne could be paying around $10 million a year for the journals to which it subscribes. And because most journals are published in the US or Europe, even slight variations in foreign exchange can play havoc with the rest of the Library budget.”

Stephen Cramond (2011), then Electronic Content Manager, The University of Melbourne Library

Now obviously publishing houses aren’t charging university libraries US$25 for each of the 60 million articles currently thought to be in existence. After all these are multi-national market leaders, not profiteering monsters. Plus the growing acceptance of the open access publishing model, where articles are freely available to anyone who might wish to read them, has seen an impressive increase in the amount of publicly available research. In fact the movement has grown so popular that in 2011, an estimated 340,000 articles were published according to the open access standards within a year of their release. A figure that accounted for approximately 17{bd4fcb2b1bb8831f9d21169e24bf6da877e938d9d91fa1fda2e590f30a306918} of the 1.66 million articles published that year. If this rate has remained consistent across the last few years it’s reasonable to think that there could be as many as 3-4 million open access articles in online research databases. But that still leaves a hell of a lot of knowledge firmly locked away.

Rather than charging per article, publishers charge libraries for annual journal subscriptions which cost on average between $1000-4000. And to make things easier for the libraries, the publishers bundle journal subscriptions together in what we will assume is an effort to ease the financial burden such costs place on university libraries. This is of course not done in an effort to force libraries to subscribe to a series of superfluously expensive offerings by mixing them in with more oft cited sellers. After all, each of Elsevier’s 2500 journals are no doubt of equal importance. Apart from of course that one outlier, the BBA Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, which currently costs $26388 each year. These bundles are thought to bring the cost of subscriptions down substanitally; however, the fact that many publishers insist on libraries signing confidentiality clauses makes getting a decent read on the costs somewhat difficult.

Of the costings that have managed to slip through the confidentiality cracks the figures have been mixed. One report indicates that journal bundles brought average subscription costs to just shy of US$2.5 million dollars for research extensive universities in 2009, whilst others indicate that universities may be paying as much as US$8 million per year for online access to a single publisher. Perhaps the widely cited cost came from one of the wealthiest academic institutes in the world, Harvard. In 2012, Harvard released a memo reporting that its annual cost for journals was approaching US$3.75 million. In their memo, Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council labelled the costs as “financially untenable” and “academically restrictive” before drawing attention to the fact that prices for online access to articles from two major publishers had increased 145{bd4fcb2b1bb8831f9d21169e24bf6da877e938d9d91fa1fda2e590f30a306918} over the previous six years. CPI increased just under 14{bd4fcb2b1bb8831f9d21169e24bf6da877e938d9d91fa1fda2e590f30a306918} over the same time period.

To make matters worse the top five publishing houses (Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage) control over 50 percent of scientific papers published. And they’re making an absolute killing from it. In 2014, “publishing leader” Elsevier reported a profit margin of 37{bd4fcb2b1bb8831f9d21169e24bf6da877e938d9d91fa1fda2e590f30a306918} on revenues of over US$3.5 billion. That’s over US$1.3 billion in profit and a profit margin almost 10{bd4fcb2b1bb8831f9d21169e24bf6da877e938d9d91fa1fda2e590f30a306918} higher than what Apple Inc reported the same year. And it’s a profit that’s made almost entirely by charging researchers at both ends of the equation.

The scientific cost of restricted access

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton

The truth is the financial costs of access, whilst abhorrently exploitative, are not the main concern. If you’re like me you’re probably more inclined to think Harvard should simply increase their library budget than spend too much time feeling sorry for them. The real concern is what restricting access does to scientific progress. Take Newton’s quote. On the one hand it’s an amazing example of a humble brag, but on the other it speaks to the very heart of scientific discovery’s cumulative nature. The words conjure up a veritable pile of scientists one atop the next reaching upwards together in a tireless campaign to extend the bounds of human knowledge. Like a castell built from people in white coats. Beneath it all though is a simple truth. Scientific progress relies on researchers having access to the work of those who came before them. And when we deny them such access, we curb the rate of progress.

Enter Alexandra Elbakyan, a neuroscientist from Kazakhstan. In 2011, understanding that scientific aptitude often refuses to subscribe to the arbitrary dilineations of wealth, Elbakyan established Sci-Hub (.io), a site that bypasses the paywalls of scientific publishers and provides free access to research to anyone who required it.

“There should be no obstacles to accessing knowledge, I believe. Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Alexandra Elbakyan, referencing Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in an interview with RT

The site operates with a simple mission “to remove all barriers in the way of science”. And it’s working. At last count Sci-Hub provided access to just under 50 million papers and in January alone it was visited more than 3.2 million times. The site’s success has led to Elbakyan gaining the well deserved moniker of the Robin Hood of Science. In fact I’ve yet to come across a scientist who doesn’t in some way view Elbakyan as a hero of sorts.

Not surprisingly, Elsevier feels differently. Having already received a preliminary injunction against the site’s former domain, the publishing giant is now suing Sci-Hub for “irreparable harm”. Elsevier looks to be claiming statutory damages of $750-$150000 for each of the pirated works accessible through the portal, with a claim that could easily run into the billions. Of course, by “irreparable harm” Elsevier is eluding to the fact that since the site launched in 2011 the operating profits on their scientific, technical and medical division have not dropped below $1 billion or a 35{bd4fcb2b1bb8831f9d21169e24bf6da877e938d9d91fa1fda2e590f30a306918} profit margin. That’s right, Sci-Hub has had made no discernible impact on Elsevier’s bottom line. And it’s because, for the most part, the site’s providing access to researchers who previously couldn’t afford it. For researchers at wealthy universities, it remains easier to access the articles through their university’s subscriptions due to the at times sluggishness of Sci-Hubs burgeoning server network. The move to sue Sci-Hub is understandable in many ways, after all, regardless of how morally corrupt their business practices are they remain perfectly legal, whilst the actions of Sci-Hub fall foul of the law. However, the publisher may find that the lawsuit brings unwanted attention to a business model so hell bent on profits that they “make Murdoch look like a socialist“. After all, this story gives me the opportunity to reminisce about how staunchly Elsevier has opposed previous efforts by government to increase public access to publicly-funded research. Such as that time they supported the Research Works Act (RWA), a bill designed to make the NIH Public Access Policy illegal. A bill that literally would have made it illegal to make publicly-funded research available to the public. Or simply that time they supported SOPA. Good times.

For her part, Elbakyan remains unfazed by the lawsuit. And why wouldn’t she? Well clear of the US’ jurisdictional reach she’s extremely unlikely to ever feel the need to add to the publishers already bulging coffers. And so, thankfully, her work on the site continues. Allowing thousands of researchers around the world to continue to get unfettered access to the giant’s shoulders.

2 Replies to “The indefensible price of accessing the giant’s shoulders”

  1. “After all these are multi-national market leaders, not profiteering monsters”

    ha. ha. ha. See an Elsevier representative explain why confidentiality agreements are essential: (spoiler: the audience literally drowns him out by laughing at him)

    BTW: nice to see people in Australia picking this up and making online noises about it. And hopefully IRL too.

    1. Thanks for the link, David! Love the reaction from the crowd! It’s almost painful to watch him try and justify the confidentiality agreements as a means to ensure subscription costs don’t drop too far.

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