In an age where a vast amount of scientific literature is accessed online, whether or not this information is available for free becomes a pertinent issue. Many prominent journals are accessible only after purchasing subscriptions, and they are protected by copyright. Other journals are open access, meaning their articles are free and have no restrictions on use. Here, we present one piece that discusses when and why open access is important, and a counter-piece that explains why paywalls are a necessary evil.
PRO OPEN ACCESS
Accelerated discovery, public enrichment, and improved education: these are the benefits of open access, as described by PLOS. PLOS is an open access journal founded in 2001 and is one of over 11,000 journals that publishes peer-reviewed scholarly articles free of charge for readers and with no restrictions on use and dissemination.
Without open access, readers face paywalls. These barriers, which are put up by subscription journals to generate revenue and offset the costs of publishing, affect students, researchers, entrepreneurs, medical practitioners, and the public in their ability to access knowledge.
As a student, access to research articles is essential. Fortunately for current U of T students, the U of T Library (UTL) system removes most of these paywalls through paid contracts with subscription journals — in fact, the UTL journal collection is one of the largest in the world.
Whether or not an article is accessible for free is essentially a non-issue while enrolled or affiliated with a prominent institution like U of T. However, the reality is that when you graduate or cease to be an employee, the paywall on these articles will reappear.
The money to pay for these subscriptions comes from students’ tuition, and the rising costs of subscriptions is partly responsible for rises in tuition. Several universities across the country have had to slash some of their journal subscriptions due to a combination of skyrocketing subscription prices and the weak Canadian dollar.
Open access removes these barriers from the get-go. Regardless of your institution’s access, tuition contribution, or your status as a student or employee, if you have an internet connection, you have access.
The benefits of open access go beyond accessibility. Open access publishing gives authors the advantage of visibility. The impact of a scholarly article — and its authors — is increased by citations. The greater amount of citations, the better. In a study recently published by FACETS on marine ecology articles, the open access articles had on average nearly 60 per cent more citations than paywalled articles. Citations play a vital role in promoting scientific collaboration.
Open access also helps improve information literacy — the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use sources — by improving the ease of searchability. In order to access paywalled articles for free, students need to search through databases that are linked to their institution. If the student is not connected to campus WiFi, they need to take an extra step and connect through my.access, which gives U of T students off-campus access to library databases. In comparison, open access articles eliminate these steps and are accessible through a simple search.
Fortunately, there is currently a push by institutions to promote open access. In an open memo in 2012, Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council called on authors to deposit their work in DASH, an open access database that provides a variety of services like monthly statistics on viewing and increased citation rates for authors.
UTL supports open access through its TSpace initiative, a repository of scholarly work authored by anyone in the U of T community. UTL also offers discounts on publishing fees to U of T researchers who choose to publish in open access journals.
Hopefully, concerted effort by world-renowned institutions like U of T and Harvard will help make open access the norm and increase the accessibility, visibility, and transparency of knowledge in academia.
Tina Bohin is a second-year student studying Neuroscience and Cell and Systems Biology.
Clara Thaysen is a fifth-year student studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She is The Varsity’s Associate Science Editor.
I take no joy in being unable to access papers, and seeing paywalls makes me want to tear my hair out. Yet, while I am not a shill for big academic publishing, I must admit that academic paywalls are, for several reasons, a necessary evil.
At the base of these reasons is the archetypical ‘root of all evil’: money. Lofty as their goals may be, at the end of the day, academic journals are businesses, and businesses have operating costs. These costs are usually paid for by institutions: this is seen close to home, as U of T purchases access to many publications for students and faculty to use for free. In the burgeoning age of open access, where revenue from the subscriptions disappear, the burden of operating costs shifts to the content producers.
Authors may already pay a fee when submitting their article for peer review — even in open access journals. This money generally comes from their funding budget. But would authors be able to afford additional fees to help a journal make up for the loss in revenue from losing their paywall? Likely not. Unfortunately, research grants, which in the past have usually come from the government, are getting scarcer. Government funding in Canada has been declining for the past decade, and 2013 marked the first time since World War II that the US government did not contribute the majority of the country’s basic research funding.
There are also private corporations that frequently fund private research for promoting research and development or for outreach reasons. However, this raises problems with impartiality that have been well documented in other literature.
If government and corporate funding is out of the question, this would leave the authors to foot the bill themselves via private or personal resources. This can discourage students, amateur researchers, and early-career scientists from publishing in prestigious but expensive journals, leaving them prey to predatory journals that charge enticingly low fees at the cost of editorial integrity and rigorous peer-review.
How is the public affected by the paywall versus open access debate? Some suggest that removing paywalls improves the public’s science literacy by making peer-reviewed science more accessible. This solution, however, is subpar. Making something financially accessible does not make it intellectually accessible.
“People who aren’t physicists aren’t able to read particle physics papers; that’s absolutely true. [And] the same thing is happening in the humanities,” explained Dr. Emanuel Istrate, Director of Academic Programs at U of T’s Impact Centre. “We need to do way more to involve the public… in what we’re doing… Just giving out PDFs is not a real solution; it’s a bandaid solution.”
Spencer Y. Ki is a second-year student studying Astrophysics and Math.