How much a scholar costs

Combatting the skyrocketing expense of academic journals

How much a scholar costs

As a U of T student, part of my student fees go towards guaranteeing access to subscriptions for dozens of academic journals. Without this subsidized access it would be necessary to pay as much as $30 per article in some popular journals. To gain extended access to a high-profile journal like Nature or Science, a year-long subscription would set you back hundreds of dollars. 

It is no wonder, then, that scientist Alexandra Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a website that allows users to pirate more than 47 million academic papers. In response, online publishing giant Elsevier — which has faced backlash from over 12,000 academics, including some from U of T — filed a legal complaint againt the website, which has since been suspended.

In response, Elbakyan moved her website to a new domain. She argued that charging for the papers was in violation of Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which pertains to one’s right to share in scientific advancement. 

As a student researcher, I support Elbakyan. Costly journals and subscriptions slow the progress of research and education. Her actions are unsurprising, given that the current publishing models do not offer an appropriate balance between the cost and accessibility of academic articles. 

Open access journals, such as the Public Library of Science, are on the rise and seem to be ushering in an age of freely available information. They are able to disseminate research to a larger audience, without steep subscriptions cost obstructing access to research. 

Without the profits from user subscriptions, however, these journals must rely on other sources of funding that ultimately decrease the quality of their published articles. There are several models, such as an article processing fee or a membership that researchers can pay for to receive publishing privileges. This erodes the integrity of the peer review system, as it puts those endowed with more money, who may simply buy a spot in the journal, in a position of privilege. 

This results in a conundrum: if we want cheaper articles and subscriptions, journals will have to increase the amount of papers they publish, and find a way to make up for the subsequently decreasing quality. 

In conditions like these, piracy seems like a viable catalyst towards a solution; we cannot blame Elbakyan for trying to access articles she needs to further her research.

It is worth considering the way TV show and movie producers have skirted around this problem. The high cost of cable and DVDs once generated a spike in piracy, which has recently decreased with more affordable streaming services like Netflix.

Research journals should consider similar solutions if they hope to decrease piracy without sacrificing the quality of their content. They must work out an appropriate profit margin that balances these concerns. 

To achieve this ambitious goal, perhaps collaboration is in order. By selling subscriptions to a third party website or program, users may be able to access articles for a reasonable monthly subscription cost. 

In this case, the unaffordable prices of academic articles inevitably led to piracy, yet an entirely open access system is not a feasible solution. It is therefore in the best interest of journals to seek third party collaborations, and aim to allow access to multiple journal subscriptions at fair prices.

Simon Spichak is a third-year student at New College studying neuroscience.

It’s getting hot in here

A look at the progress and pitfalls of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference

It’s getting hot in here

At the tail end of 2015, the world’s leaders met in Paris to discuss the growing issue of global climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference, also known as the twenty-first “Conference of the Parties” to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, successfully ended with the creation of the Paris Agreement.

The agreement binds 55 parties, which account for 55 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. It aims to hold global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, worldwide. With China and India continuing to rapidly industrialize, and the continuation of high per capita carbon emissions in the West, this agreement sets some ambitious targets.

While the conference was arguably successful in setting measurable goals, critics have called the targets unrealistic. Citing the failures of 1997’s Kyoto Protocol, and the slow adoption of green technology worldwide, many experts have their doubts about whether this new agreement will succeed where other agreements have failed.

Recently, a group of University of Toronto students were selected as delegates for the conference. Larissa Parker, a fourth-year U of T student studying ethics, society and law, environmental studies, and political science, was one such delegate.

“Overall, I believe that the meeting was a success,” said Parker. “It is impossible to ignore the fact that this was really the first time that a vast majority of countries agreed on a binding agreement and collectively responded to the urgency of tackling climate change in an organized and respectful manner.”

The agreement has also been criticized for imposing restrictions on countries that are becoming increasingly industrialized. These countries need energy to power their industrialization, and are pointing towards the historical abuse of fossil fuels by high-income countries as a pathway for success.

When asked about the fairness of the declarations made by the agreement to low-income countries, Parker pointed out that the declarations are, in some respects, fair. Parker also noted that the warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius was “a huge victory for the developing world, and particularly small island states who passionately argued that two degrees was not enough to save their nations from natural disasters such as floods and droughts.”

The conference discussed the possibility of global partnerships, whereby more industrialized countries would work to alleviate the effect of climate change in less industrialized countries. One of the proposals is to compensate lower-income countries for the economic losses they may incur due to the destruction of their natural ecosystems, with funding coming from countries that have polluted the most.

“Many states like the US and Canada however, were uncomfortable with ‘liability and compensation,’” Parker said. This led to a “footnote in the agreement specifying that loss and damage would not involve liability or compensation.”

Even with all of the high hopes for this agreement, critics around the world still question whether these targets are attainable. “Although the agreement is the most ambitious and cooperative text to tackle climate change that the world has ever seen, it is clear that the targets that each country has put forward, when added up together, do not reach 1.5 or even two degrees. In fact, with the current targets, the world is looking at around three degrees of warming,” Parker said.