Paywalls and Open Access: A Researcher’s Perspective


One of the many hats I wear is as a part-time PhD student. I’m on a structured PhD in Child and Youth Research, registered as a psychology student. My thesis is centred around stress and coping in adolescence, rooted around the Leaving Certificate (major state exams in Ireland).

I’ve been working on my lit review in recent times, and time and again I have been frustrated by the paywalls I’ve been coming up against for access to journal articles online. I’m continually hitting these, despite having ‘access’ through my institution to many databases. I know I’m not alone in this, as many of my friends have been posting similar ‘can anyone in a different institute to me see if they can access this article?‘ type posts on Facebook.

Ideally, I would have funding, and therefore not have to blink an eyelid about paying for each article, right?

But there’s more to it than that, leaving aside the fact that as I am unfunded, every paperclip gets paid for out of my own pocket. When a researcher submits to these journals, and has their article published – there is no kickback to the author for publication, at least not in monetary form. Theoretically publications = citations = getting your name out there = grant money (you hope) & improved CV etc, etc. But the author doesn’t get a paycheck for publishing articles.

This sticks in my craw, and not just because I’m stuck without access to articles because I’m not swimming in cash, and can’t even hope to make it back when I start (hopefully) publishing fairly regularly. I firmly believe that research, insofar as possible, should be easily and freely accessible. I believe that there should be stronger links between academia and the ‘real world’, which outside of the pure sciences such as medicine, doesn’t often exist. Research should exist to be used, whether to further someone else’s research or to make real changes in the world, not to sit on a shelf garnering dust.

Recently, a Ukrainian student called Alexandra Elbakyan became academia’s Aaron Swartz, when she created Sci-Hub, a ‘pirating’ site for journal articles. By typing in the details of the article, you can access a vast array of journals while also bypassing the paywall. This was a brave move, and one that I’m sure has caused many a student to rejoice as their lives/ research/ jobs are made easier.

However, as was probably to be expected, not all of the publishing companies were happy about this development, as it would inevitably lead to financial loss for them. One of these companies, Elsevier launched legal action, and I note on a visit to the site today that no content from Sage is available which would indicate they have made similar moves (although I could be wrong there). Sci-Hub exists under several usable domain names, and so has been able to remain live in some form despite these challenges while legal action is ongoing.

On the other hand, there has been a push towards ‘open-access’ journals in recent times, although these often require the author to pay for the privilege (as I guess journal publishers have to make money from somewhere!). Biomed is one of these, for example. While the issues regarding money are not much altered from a user’s point of view (the main difference being that the cost is pushed from the reader to the author, and most researcher’s don both caps at various points), there is a fairly strong argument that open-access research is just better for science all round.

This is certainly a topic that is not going to die down any time soon, and I for one will be watching it very closely!


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