The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

On Paywalls and Privilege July 6, 2013

Filed under: academia,access,grad school,publishing — excitablescientist @ 8:55 pm

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working with a superb colleague who recently had an article published in a high-impact journal, on which I was a co-author.  I feel so lucky to have been part of this process; it has been an awesome learning experience and has laid the foundation for what I think will become my PhD project. I’ve also learned so much about the politics and logistics of getting a paper published (mainly by observing the negotiations with editors and reviewers), something I think a lot of grad students don’t experience until much later in the game.


It does, of course, feel pretty cool to be published in a GlamourMag family journal.  One of my best friends, from the same country as me but currently working abroad, got very excited about this and posted a link to the article on a social media site.  Very soon afterwards, I read a comment by a mutual acquaintance that gave me pause: “Well done, but we can’t even open the paper to read it. Thanks, home country!”.  It was a sudden and stark reminder of the unequal distribution of scientific resources globally, and of my own position of privilege as a grad student in a well-funded lab in the West.  I can’t imagine how demoralizing it would be to be constantly treated as a second-class scientist by paywalls still in place at most major journals.  There are ways to get an article even if your institution doesn’t have a subscription to the journal – e.g. by e-mailing the corresponding author – but this is akin to having to go to the food bank instead of living in a society which has systems in place for all of its citizens to meet basic needs in a dignified manner.  It’s pretty clear to me that scientists in what’s now known as the Global South (not restricted to the southern hemisphere) work harder and smarter with fewer resources for less recognition.


Most e-mail interactions I’ve had with professors at other universities have been in the context of collaborations, sharing results, planning meetings- all joyful occasions, in which I have felt our groups have been on equal footing.  I imagine my self-esteem would be greatly reduced if the majority of my interactions with other profs were e-mail requests for their articles, highlighting my position as a grad student in an underresourced setting, implying the inadequacy of the setting, and probably of me.  I have probably 300 papers from closed access journals in my library, and have skimmed through probably double or triple that number in the past year.  If I didn’t have access to journals through my institution, that would necessitate sending thousands of e-mails requesting paper reprints: a colossal waste of everyone’s time.  In reality, I probably wouldn’t bother, and would base decisions of what to read based on what I can access, instead of on the quality of the science.


Much has been written about the ability of open access to facilitate knowledge exchange and therefore new discoveries, and of the cost of paywalls in terms of diminished productivity if people can’t access and therefore cannot build on what’s already been published.  I’ve long accepted that paywalls slow the pace of research at institutions that cannot afford to subscribe to major journals.  What I hadn’t thought about until now, and am finding more personally compelling, is the effect on individual researcher productivity and probably morale.  As any PhD student knows, working in biomedical research can be demoralizing enough owing to the high failure rate of experiments in the best of environments, without having to jump through hoops to even be able to read articles- something too many of us take for granted.


An increasing number of scientists and journals are making open access publishing a priority.  I’m ashamed to admit I’m not one of them, at least not in this particular instance.  I’m determined to push for the OA option on “my” future papers, but I didn’t have the guts to do it for a study I didn’t lead.  It would have been expensive, and probably would have been yet another uphill battle against the status quo.  That’s still no excuse for not trying.  And it’s a little bittersweet to think that many of my friends and family might be proud of me for publishing in a high-impact journal – if only they could read it.


One Response to “On Paywalls and Privilege”

  1. In undergrad, I spent a summer at another institution doing some work in chemistry. When I returned home to Olin (which, remember, has a total student population of 300 undergrads) some follow-up writing became essentially impossible because chemistry wasn’t an emphasis and we had barely any holdings in the field. It’s also a real bear in industry settings, which tend not to have holdings at all; luckily, I’ve always worked with people who had back door access that they were willing to share, which, strictly speaking, is improper. Perhaps we should have been paying the per-article rate, but of course it’s really hard to tell how useful an article is going to be from its abstract. Insane that publicly funded research results should be inaccessible to the public.

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