Accessing Scientific Information

by: Jack McAlpine


The internet has made it so that you can answer almost any question at any time. Who are the Black Eyed Peas other than or Fergie? How much does a sloth weigh? How long would it take me to drive and visit my family during the pandemic? Can Father Time stop Lebron James or Tom Brady? Searching any of these questions via Google yields hundreds of results. While some of this information may be behind soft paywalls, demand that you turn off your adblocker, or request donations, the majority of sources do not require you to pay for their material outright. And if you do run into a hard paywall, someone has likely taken the information and started hosting it on another site.

One institution that has hard paywalls is scientific journals. This goes largely unnoticed because the majority of the population is not looking for up to date scientific data. The readers of these journals are generally part of an institution that pays for access. An anomaly of the scientific publication process is that the journal makes money on both supply and demand. Not only is there a cost to read the material, but there is also a cost to publish. It is unintuitive that an institution that thrives off of the betterment of society through increased knowledge provides a barrier to entry on either side of the process. This has led to a push for open access publications in which authors still must pay to publish, but readers can look at any article for free.

Are journals really all that and a bag of chips? Does open access actually have societal impacts? Can journals be entirely avoided with preprints?

            To begin, we should think about why journals are used. Historically, the dissemination of information was difficult, so journals were needed to make sure that everything you wanted to read could be easily found. Printing, editing, and shipping all cost money, so journals cost money. With the advent of the internet, print media has diminished in popularity. And the costs that come with publication have also decreased. The cost of a journal article is for the trust that comes from the fact that the articles are peer reviewed. This practice should prevent the publication of misinformation and uphold the prestige that journals are expected to maintain. Researchers hold peer review in high esteem and see it as a necessary step in any publication process. But does data support this assessment?

In a recent review of the peer review process it was joked that “If peer review were to undergo peer review it would undoubtedly achieve a ‘revise and resubmit’ decision”.1 There is a lack of formality in the roles between editors and reviewers. This leads to inconsistencies in an almost paradoxical process. Reviewers must review new ideas and opinions in a field of research that they are actively expressing their own ideas in without being biased.2 While researchers are often excited to participate in peer review, there is little to gain except being a positive part of the system. The time commitment without additional pay to do work outside of the reviewer’s job also poses problems. One scientist has proposed a “modest” pay of $50 per hour to review.3 While a modest six figure salary would make reviewers happier it would not help overarching issues. Peer review is an inherently subjective system, and that is hard to fix. But what about finding misinformation? In a 2006 study, papers with significant errors were given to reviewers. Only about a quarter of the total errors were caught by most reviewers, while some found none.4 I do not want to imply that peer review is a terrible process. It is necessary but flawed, and if it is the main draw for publication in journals it needs to be better. Hopefully more research will be conducted into the process of peer review, but who will peer review their findings…

We need to change the way we consume media “Eating knowledge” by -Jérôme- is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If I am accessing an article online, what am I paying for? I am not directly supporting the author, besides increasing their clout by increasing their article view metrics. The people who review the article are not getting paid. So, all the money goes to the journal, formatters, and more administrative processes. Publishing in a journal already costs between $1000 and $2000. But I have never paid for an article because the universities I have attended have paid for a subscription to these journals. The cost of the subscriptions varies from school to school, but could be several hundred thousand to several million dollars.5 The State Universities of New York recently switched from a 2200 journal subscription plan to only 248 journals, their subscription fee dropped by seven million dollars.6 The universities that pay for the right to access the journals are the ones that provide the articles in the first place. A lack of open access is an incredible financial burden on public institutions. The California university system is leading the charge toward open access. The UC system cut ties with Elsevier in June of 2019. Elsevier is one of the largest scientific publishing organizations with impactful journals such as: Cell, Journal of Human Evolution, and Journal of Urology. Further, an agreement with the Nature family of journals has been reached so that all articles published with corresponding authors in the UC system will be made publicly available by 2022. However, the loss of subscription fees will be made up elsewhere. The cost of publishing in an open access journal from Nature is $5380, while journals that charge subscription fees had publication costs closer to $3000.7 But does the switch to open access really help, or just cost authors more? Readership does increase, but not in any dramatic way. The general public does not have great interest in reading scientific literature.8 In developing countries, the impact is far more substantial. Where science may not have as much of a substantial funding system, having access to literature can divert funding toward research and not just reading about what can be done.9 While open access would have strong societal impacts, journals will likely look to offload some of the financial consequences onto authors.

You after reading all of the open access journal articles “Artificial Intelligence & AI & Machine Learning” by mikemacmarketing is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

What if journals are avoided entirely? This is the idea of preprints. Articles are published online with the understanding that they have not undergone peer review. Preprints were first published on arXiv in 1991.10 They allow for ideas to be seen maybe a year before they will be published, largely unchanged, in a major journal. This could speed up the progress of research and promote cooperation.11 Great examples of the use of preprints were during Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Data and methods that matched up with peer reviewed articles were available more than 100 days before their peer reviewed counter parts. However, less than 5% of total publications on the diseases were released as preprints. While scientists agree that in the case of outbreaks, as much data as possible needs to be brought to the forefront, there are fears about misinformation.12 Similar open access and preprint data has been made available with COVID-19. CORD-19 is a database that has been collecting all papers on COVID-19 and making them free for download. Open access and preprints provide valuable information to a populace that needs answers as soon as possible.13 While pandemics are extreme examples, preprints provide information much faster than otherwise possible and promote scientific research.

While it would be nice if everything were free, it never will be. In the current system, the people who make money off scientific data are not the ones that produce it. Journals do provide the necessary process of peer review, but the peer reviewers themselves are not paid either. Further, there are increasing frustrations with the peer review system and many are calling for the process to be revamped. And while a switch to open access journals may not lessen the financial burden on higher education, it does provide greater access to information. Preprints offer a unique way to view work with the large stipulation that it has not been peer reviewed. The quest for knowledge can lead to reading misinformation or a lack of guidance. It is important to learn from trusted sources. If you find yourself unable to read on certain subjects, libraries do carry journal articles. If you want to stick to the world wide web, email the author of the paper, I am sure that they would be happy to share their work. You could also reach out to someone you know and see if they have access. In a world where everyone is connected, there are endless ways to share information…


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  5. Bohannon, J. How much did your university pay for your journals? Science (2014).
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