Health·Second Opinion

Why does it cost millions to access publicly funded research papers? Blame the paywall

There’s a titanic struggle under way over a wall — the paywall that blocks access to much of the world’s scientific literature. Last week, the University of California ended its contract Elsevier, one of the world's most powerful scientific publishing companies. Canadian university librarians cheered.

Canadian universities struggle to pay for access to their own research reports as publishers profit

The cost of accessing academic literature is increasing dramatically. Last year, Canadian university libraries paid more than $300 million for subscriptions to research journals, including those containing papers generated by their own professors. (Shutterstock/Lena Lir)

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Canada's academic librarians are cheering from the sidelines now that the University of California has cancelled its subscriptions with the academic publishing giant Elsevier.

It was a clash of titans as the largest public university in the U.S. pushed back against a multi-million dollar paywall blocking open access to the world's scientific knowledge.

"People were following it very closely," said Mary-Jo Romaniuk, librarian and vice-provost at the University of Calgary. "This may be the start of things to come."

Tension has been building for years over the gradual privatization of academic literature which has resulted in a handful of powerful international publishing companies controlling the dissemination of research. 

Elsevier is one of the largest academic publishers in the world, with prestigious journals including The Lancet and Cell.

It leads the "big five" group that also includes Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and Sage. Altogether, they publish more than 11,000 journals.

Researchers write for free

Academic publishing is based on an unusual business arrangement where much of the content and the labour is provided free by the customer.

It works this way: Publicly funded scientists do the research, write the papers and act as peer reviewers for their colleagues' work without remuneration from publishing companies.

Then those companies charge universities and other institutions millions of dollars in subscription fees for access to the same published research. And those subscription fees increase every year.

Vincent Larivière has studied the rising cost of access to academic research. He is a professor of information science at the University of Montreal. (Amélie Philibert)

Last year, Canadian university libraries paid more than $300 million for subscriptions to research journals, including those containing papers generated by their own professors.

It's become so expensive that some libraries have cancelled journals, leaving their students and faculty without access to some of that research.

It creates a bizarre situation for students at the University of Calgary, who can't access the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CJLACS) even though it's published next door at the University of British Columbia.

In order to keep publishing, the journal was forced to sign on with Taylor & Francis where it was bundled with other journals and sold as a package. The University of Calgary had to drop that package to cut costs.

"There's almost no public funding for journals through universities anymore. So the publishing world has basically been forced into the commercial sphere," said Jessica Stites Mor, the editor in chief of CJLACS. She edits the journal for free. None of the authors or peer reviewers are paid either.

There's little room for anyone to opt out of the arrangement. Most academic careers depend on journal publications, so the rule of "publish or perish" reinforces the power of for-profit academic publishers.

"We're creating right now incentives in the research system so that these for-profit publishers are increasing their importance," said Vincent Larivière, a professor of information science at the University of Montreal. "These organizations make profit margins around 40 per cent.

"There is certainly material out there that suggests that there's excessive profits being taken," said Romaniuk.

Libraries forced to choose 

Academic libraries don't have much wiggle room either. Even though their budgets are tight, they are required to provide access to the journals their students and faculty need for research.

That means they have less money to buy books. And that hits some departments especially hard.

I think we've reached a point where the model is just unsustainable.- Vincent Larivière, professor of information science, University of Montreal

"History, the humanities, and English, those kinds of disciplines are still big users of books," said Nicole Eva, librarian at the University of Lethbridge. "But as we have less money available for books then they're disproportionately impacted."

Last week's move by the University of California is the latest in a series of efforts to break the knowledge monopoly. German and Swedish universities have also cancelled subscriptions with Elsevier.

"I think we've reached a point where the model is just unsustainable," said Larivière. "The money that we're spending on these for-profit publishers is money that does not stay in the research system, that does not stay in the university system and is actually not used to do research."

Mary-Jo Romaniuk, librarian and vice-provost at University of Calgary said Canadian universities are exploring ways to create open access to academic research. (Dave Brown/University of Calgary)

"Is there a way out? I think in Canada we are working together to look at different open-access models," said Romaniuk, adding there is one major problem.

"How do you deal with cost of publishing if you give it away for free?" The answer? Scientists pay several thousand dollars to have their research published on open-access forums.

"We already work for free so there's no less amount of money they could pay us," said Stites Mor. "You can't get cheaper than free."

Increasingly, public funding agencies are requiring scientists to make their research freely available as a condition for receiving grants.

All three of Canada's major research funding agencies — the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) — have an open access requirement. Any research funded since 2015 must be freely available within 12 months.

So far, CIHR estimates that about 60 per cent of its researchers have complied.

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Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a health and science reporter, who previously spent more than 30 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs for CBC News.