If you live outside the bubble of academia, you may be aware of how difficult it is to get your hands on academic publications and research. A quick web search will show that while some are available online for free, many academic journals, research papers and articles live out their days behind a high paywall. Some newspapers, too, have decided to introduce paywalls, so you may conclude that there’s nothing notably different about academic work – that is until you see the price. A typical cost of £20 for a single academic article is far from the most expensive, and when compared with a reputed newspaper like the Financial Times (£8.60 per week for seven days of 40+ pages of articles), it becomes clear that there’s more than just opportunity for insight in the text, there’s money too. 

Academic Publishing – The Current Format 

We probably all agree that good work deserves a fair wage; if someone has dedicated considerable time to working on a paper, they should be paid accordingly. Unfortunately, many involved in the work of academic journal publishing are often unlikely to see a single penny for their graft. One academic described the system as “an entire economy built on volunteer labour”. One reason for this is that publication in reputed journals forms an essential part of securing future research grants, and gaining visibility is merely a means to an end for many researchers. And consider this: are peer-reviewers, for example, likely to spend considerable time questioning the validity of an argument or source if they’re not being paid? It’s not just the general public missing out on research; the quality standards are also at risk. 

Material that eventually finds its way into academic journals is often commissioned and funded via government research grants or “academic stipends”; that’s money from the taxpayer, yet to see this material, the taxpayer must pay again.  

Similarly, higher education libraries are charged sizeable sums to stock such material, which most public libraries just can’t afford. Higher education providers are essentially trapped into paying for relevant journals, and these costs can be passed on to undergraduates via tuition fees. Student loan projections suggest that these burdens will, too, eventually become just another burden on the taxpayer when the payback times out.  

Worryingly, large academic publishers tie in non-disclosure clauses into their so-called ‘Big Deal’ contracts with libraries to ensure the real cost of these academic journals is never fully seen. These ‘Big Deal’ contracts are somewhat controversial, as they usually lock in a “significant part of libraries’ budgets” thus strengthening their position by leaving little money spare for libraries to spend on newer, smaller research providers. It’s a system that has been referred to as a monopoly that uses public money. 

Europe Leads the Way   

The good news is change is on the way. “Plan S” is an initiative from “11 national research funding organisations, with the support of the European Commission including the European Research Council” that plans to make “full and immediate Open Access to research publications a reality.” What does it mean for an average citizen? In short, publications that are funded with public grants, and which are from participating countries, must be published in Open Access journals or platforms from 1st January 2020. Other noteworthy ‘principles’ from Plan S include: the copyright of the work will remain with the author (previously, academic journals took ownership), new journals will be created by the collaborative members of Plan S, and any fees incurred will be covered by the  publication owners or by the university from which it is published. 

Although confined to science, the changes from Plan S could pave the way for all areas of academic publishing. And the potential impact is significant; opening up cutting-edge research to all means we’re likely to see improvements in healthcare, for example, around the world. That’s potential life-saving knowledge (that was funded often by taxpayers, remember) being opened up to countries that have little-to-no research framework.  

If you’re interested in advocating for an open system of academic publications, please consider sharing this article.  

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