Should Access to Scientific Research Be Free?

Federally-Funded Research Might Someday Be Free

A New Scientist article by Graham Lawton predicts that, by January 1, 2030, all biomedical research will be free to read. That might be an overly ambitious goal. It might not be a good idea, either.

If research is federally funded, then perhaps — as Boingboing suggests — the research findings should be free. However, sometimes you have to be careful about getting what you wish for. Federally-funded research that is free to everyone could actually compromise the integrity of the scientific information that is published.

The Economics of Publishing Research

To understand this, you have to know a little bit about the economics of publishing research. Scientific publishing is a big business and often a major source of revenue for professional organizations that own their own journals. According to The Guardian, scientific publishing is a 19 billion Euro (~25 billion dollar) business. This makes it about the same size as the film industry.

Nominally, scientific research is funded by the U.S. government. But federal funding to conduct research does not cover the costs of the publication and distribution of the science. The federal government may be unwilling, or unable, to pay for the production let alone the dissemination of scientific information to everyone who wants access to it.

The publication of scientific research is expensive. Production, archiving, marketing, and distribution are fixed, relatively inelastic costs. This means there are significant upfront and overhead fees that are loosely related to the number of manuscripts accepted and published.

Federal research grants do not cover these expenses. Yet, somehow, the costs of publication must be paid.

Scientific journals are able to offset most of their production and management costs with advertising within the journal, contracts to institutions for subscriptions, or individual subscriptions. A small part of the publishers’ revenue comes from fees the authors pay to allow their manuscripts to be available for open access. Alternatively, the journal can charge users a fee to download and read a manuscript.

One of the major expenses of traditional publications such as magazines are the costs of writers and editors. Scientific publications avoid these costs because scientists produce their own manuscripts to get them published, and they review them to maintain their credibility in the academic community.

Publish or Perish

Publishing is mandatory for scholars. Scientists need to be published by journals to earn tenure at their universities or to be recognized as experts in their fields. That means scientific journal publishers have a steady and reliable supply of cheap editorial content.

Once a manuscript is submitted to a journal for consideration, the editor-in-chief usually assigns a manuscript to a senior editor who will then request that the manuscript be reviewed by someone who is an expert in the area of science that is covered in the manuscript. This is called the peer review process. Elsewhere, editors might be paid a high wage for their services, but scholars are obligated to contribute their labor for free in order to be viewed as experts in their fields.

Writers, senior editors, editorial board members, and reviewers are not compensated by most scientific journals. If they are working with a publication that does pay, they may receive either nominal compensation or a small number of continuing education credits. Again, this puts journals in the fortuitous position of bypassing the high costs of creating and editing articles.

A Critical Review of Scientific Publishing

However, because of the lucrative scientific publishing business and the mercenary nature of the internet as a whole, a new crop of publications has emerged that threatens the integrity of scientific publications. Referred to as predatory journals, these are not high quality, trustworthy journals. In fact, many of them have reportedly published fraudulent articles or total sham science. The proliferation of these dubious publications has become a big enough problem that, according to the New Yorker, “Universities and colleges typically keep white lists of the journals they deem acceptable for their researchers to publish in.”

Indeed, there needs to be a critical review of how biomedical research is made available to society. Taxpayers may be entitled to receive information that they have funded, and maybe scholars should have access to published research without paying exorbitant fees. Making that happen could require an overhaul of scientific journals’ business model while also ensuring the integrity of the science.






  1. Louis Ogden on December 2, 2018 at 3:15 am

    Dr. Webster,

    This is an excellent article and one that needs to be given some thought on how to implement. I hate seeing all the “woo-woo” that passes for science and real people spend money on these useless treatments. I would love being sure that what I am reading is, in fact, factual.

  2. JEN on December 2, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    Forbes and UnHerd both had good articles as to why studies are flawed.

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