Scientific Journals and The Great Paywall

Doing scientific research can be a challenging endeavour. While the successful results of research typically makes it to the general public, many attempts end up on a dead end road. Typically with significant amounts of time "wasted" on something the didn't work out in the end.

Once nice results are obtained, the next stressful journey of communicating the work to the scientific community. Yes, I'm talking about journal publication. For those who were involved in a publication process know how stressful, time consuming and cumbersome it can be.

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For one, writing up your research in a clear and scientifically sound manner, getting a hand on the often complex submission process, mailing back and forth with co-authors, Journal editors, and of course the long waiting period before receiving back review comments.

In short, this whole process is something that requires hard work and persistence. Hence, jumping through the publication hoop successfully and seeing your publication on the Journal's website is a great achievement as a researcher. It's a testament to all your efforts that one wants to share with everyone in your field of research.

More than often, however, sharing your work is not a straight forward procedure. For one, many well established and respected Journals, have created paywalls on their websites. Simply put, in order to get an article one has to pay. Paying 20 to 30 Euros to get your hands on a digital version is no exception.

While for many year's I kind of accepted these paywalls as a given. I always assumed the hard work of Journals lies in the hands of the Journals themselves. Fair enough for them to charge some money right? Besides that, the universities I worked at typically had full access to these Journals anyways.

The university at which I currently work, however, does not get me the easy Journal access I enjoyed in the past. And that made me think: why is the hard work of researchers payed (in most cases) by public money not openly available to the public that fronted this money?

The Cost of Knowledge

It turns out I'm not alone in this! In fact there are movements that advocate the boycott of certain publishers to demand lower prices. The Cost of Knowledge initiative for example has their focus on Elsevier, a Dutch-based publisher with an annual revenue of £2.64 billion in 2019.

The Pirate Bay for Science

And then there's the piracy route. Over the years many initiatives arose with the aim of sharing scientific work for free through specialised online search engines with questionable legality. The Pirate Bay for science, sort to say.

Source: screenshot of Hollywood movie Captain Phillips

A well known website in this category is SciHub, an initiative by Kazakhstani Alexandra Elbakyan. This website even comes with a Telegram bot that can be used to find scientific papers very easily.

A legal alternative

Another less questionable but sub-ideal option is provided by Through this online platform, scientific researcher can (if Journals allow) upload preprints of their works. The downside to this infrastructure, of course, is the lack of peer reviewing. While the works provided via Arxiv are mostly preprints, they cannot be trusted with the same ease as the actual published works. Simply because peer review can not be assumed.

Although the world of scientific publishing is a misty ocean full of ships with conflicting interests (this article doesn't even cover just the smallest tip of the iceberg), the tools above allow you sail through.

What do you do to get the latest ins and outs in your field of research? Do you sail the corvette or the pirate ship?

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