The end of the paywall?

How many times have you bumped into a paywall and cursed? There are some indications that paywalls could soon belong to the past, but what will replace them? Learn more from Catherine Brendow in the following article.

Paywalls are poisoning academic life. They can make access to articles difficult, even when your institution has a subscription to the journal. The rising cost of subscriptions is draining library budgets, and many academics and librarians find it both absurd and unfair that private companies can make huge profit margins by selling products (the articles) they got from the academics for free, even if they add some value through editorial work.

Change is in the air

For the last two decades, the open access movement has tried to change this model, and now the pressure seems to have become strong enough to achieve a change. Many funders no longer want to see the research they paid for end behind paywalls, and require researchers to either publish their articles in a fully open access journal (gold OA) or share them in a repository (green OA).

The European Commission and many European countries, including Switzerland, now have an official policy in favor of open access, as research is generally funded with their (public) money. In more and more countries, institutions dare to do what used to be unthinkable: cancel their subscriptions like Swedish or French universities.

The much debated European Plan S puts some additional pressure. Is it good news in a troubled world? Or are there good reasons to remain wary?

Moving the paywall

The paywall might not disappear: it could just move from the reader to the writer. It is certainly great for those who are just reading, but can have some drawbacks for those who are also publishing. Some gold open access journals charge article-processing charges (APCs) to cover the costs of editorial work. Sometimes (but not always), these APCs are paid by funders, especially when the funders require the researcher to publish in gold open access. Sometimes, they are paid by universities.

The money saved through subscription cancellations can be invested in APCs, with this question: will we really spend less public money? Or will the costs of APCs rise sharply in the coming years, just like the costs of subscriptions did?

After all, the market for journal articles remains highly uncompetitive, as mentioned in Peter Suber’s 2012 book: “every scholarly journal is a natural mini-monopoly in the sense that no other journal publishes the same articles”. The academic publishing market remains an oligopoly in the hands of a few major actors. These actors have already established open access strategies: Elsevier, for instance, bought several companies in recent years allowing it to control all the stages of a researchers’ workflow.

The view from the South

Researchers from emerging countries currently have poor access to research because their institutions could not afford the same subscriptions as rich countries universities. In the future, they may not be able to pay APCs either. Some journals offer fee waivers or discounts for researchers from low- and middle-income countries; these waivers can be automatic, but in many cases, the author has to apply for a waiver, which can create a psychological barrier.

The risk remains anyway that researchers could be excluded from the global scholarly conversation, and have to publish in local journals with a much smaller impact. The signatories of the Dakar Declaration on Open Access Publishing in Africa and the Global South in 2016 have expressed their concern about the impact of Article Processing Charges on research outputs.

From paywall to datawall?

The American librarian Lisa Hinchliffe also fear that paywalls could become datawalls: readers could need to create an account and provide personal data to access “free” articles. “I must consent to account terms — e.g., data tracking, analysis, reporting — that I have no mechanism for negotiating. Instead of a paywall, I face a datawall.” Elsevier-owned SSRN apparently already makes it harder to access articles without registering first.

It is not all over yet…

Do not forget that there are two roads to open access, and that the green one is normally without APCs or datawalls. It is up to the researchers to feed these OA repositories with their pre- or postprints. Not all gold open access journals charge APCs, and sometimes the APCs remain very affordable. A Fair Open Access Alliance is trying to return control of the publication process to the scholarly community. Open access remains a great idea, and the academic publishing system is still evolving, with many changes to come.


Interested in open access? Check our new open access libguide and let us know what you think!

Cover picture (cropped): Berlin Wall, by Michael Kauer (Pixabay license).

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