CIRCA:Open Access vs. Closed Access: The Cost of Knowledge


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In January 2012, a Cambridge professor and prestigious Field Medal-winning mathematician Tim Gowers wrote an angry blog [2], which later started a scientific revolution [5]. What was it actually all about? His resentment revolved around the cost of scientific publication. He primarily argued that Elsevier, like many other global publishing giants but worst of its kind, is doing business with taxpayer’s money. It charges a higher amount of money from both libraries to subscribe to its journals and individuals to purchase its articles.

Also, it forces libraries to subscribe bundle of journals every year with a large sum of money. Thus, it keeps scientific knowledge behind the paywalls. Thinking so, Tim openly withdrew himself from any association with Elsevier, for example, as a writer, reviewer, or editor-member [2].

This write-up shared the sentiment of many scholars around the world, which immediately called for an academic protest and campaign known as The Cost of Knowledge ( Three clearly stated objections drive this collaboration: exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals; forcing libraries to buy a large bundle of journal subscriptions; aimed at restricting the free exchange of knowledge by supporting relevant policies like SOPA, PIPA.

To date, nearly 20,000 researchers around the world joined this movement. It inspired global awareness regarding the capitalistic venture of the global publishers and led to the open access movement. The rationale for open access is largely encouraged by the contemporary publication process, which is seemingly a barrier for open knowledge.

Researchers' Benefits from Publishing

Publishers are also benefiting researchers by allowing them to publish their scholarly works, and disseminate these across the world, Doing this, publishers help to build researchers' reputations. Regarding the technical and managerial aspects, they maintain the journal websites, maintenance of the publication process: proofreading and copyediting, manuscript designing, and publishing hard copies and online copies (see A Day in the life of a researcher).

Problems of the Publication Process

Currently, only a few major scientific publishers are ruling the world. The list includes Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Routledge, Sage, McGraw Hill, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and University of Chicago Press. The first three publishers own the largest share of the academic journal and publish 42% of all articles. Elsevier publishes around 3000 academic journals, while Sage and Routledge publish around 1200 and 2000 journals, respectively.

Worldwide the publishing companies have estimated sales of 19 billion dollars per year with a profit margin of 40% (higher than companies such as Google and Coca-Cola) [4]. Again, “the government funds all stages of research production but must then pay again to have access to the research results” [4]. Universities pay exorbitant prices to have access to publications for their students, and the increasing cost of subscriptions is somewhat responsible for the increasing cost of higher education. For example, Harvard used to pay USD 3.5 million per year [7].

The Dean of Harvard stated that they are facing difficulties in affording such higher prices for academic publications [7]. The university stated that the main publishers increased their prices by 145% over the past six years. The Norwegian public institutions pay an average of 330 million euros for subscriptions, and other European countries pay an estimated 420 million euros [4]. It seems the world of higher education is caught into a monopoly of scientific publication.

How is a research paper published? The process is pretty straightforward and commonplace. First, based on personal or external funding, researchers conduct a research project and write a paper. After finishing it, they chose and submit to a journal. Assistant editors and editors for the journal then evaluate the merit of the paper. These persons are usually academics from different reputed universities and research institutions around the world, and they serve the journals voluntarily usually without any monetary benefits, except for academic reasons. If suitable, then they send the paper to external reviewers for peer-reviewing the article.

These reviewers are also volunteers who invest their valuable time in reviewing papers not for monetary benefits but for advancing scientific knowledge. Once the paper is accepted, it is published on the journal’s website, which is not accessible to all. It remains behind the paywall, and if someone wants to access it, s/he either needs to access it either through the university library who has the subscription or buy it with. While purchasing a single article may range between USD 25-60, libraries are paying millions of dollars every year for the subscriptions of various journals.

In this publication cycle, who are the direct beneficiary in terms of financial benefits? The researchers receive no money from the publishers by publishing their papers. The voluntary academics, who serve as editors, reviewers, or in editorial boards, receive no monetary incentives. Even though the research is funded by the government bodies or universities, everyone including the funding bodies needs to access these publications by paying a large sum of money. On the other hand, the publishers are making money by exploiting free academic labor.

Apart from the monetary deprivation and imbalance, this contemporary publication model has some other demerits. For example, it impedes scientific progress by the paywalls. Often some scientific findings need to be readily accessible for further development, and this restriction causes delay. Also, while universities mostly in the developed countries can pay for the subscriptions, most universities around the world and especially from developing and underdeveloped countries fail to manage it due to the lack of fundings.

As a result, researchers from these institutions are unable to access these papers and are deprived of global and updated knowledge. It facilitates the knowledge divide around the world remarkably.


Gold and green open access explained.

These problems can be resolved in multiple ways. Even some solutions are already there, which have been developing for the last few years. Of them, open access seems the most effective solution.

Open access refers to freely available information and content on the internet, where the barriers of the copyright restriction and licensing are limited or non-existent [8]. According to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, open-access literature means “its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself” [1].

Most of the publishers are giving an opportunity to the research to publish their papers open access but with a publication fee. This model has been popularized by American publishers Public Library of Science (PLoS). In such cases, the author needs to pay USD 1000-5000 to publish their papers publicly available, which still seems a large amount of money. For example, the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) charges USD 5000 to the authors for publishing their papers. This system is called Gold Open Access publishing, which relies on established publishers and their websites to make the papers accessible.

On the contrary, the Green Open Access offers a new avenue for global researchers to make their research available instantly or more quickly. These platforms are known as pre-print servers, where authors publish their papers before peer-reviewing or after publishing. More researchers are becoming interested in publishing pre-prints of their papers for advancing scientific knowledge, though it has some issues with results’ reliability and validity. These platforms include arXiv, medRxiv, bioRxiv. Repositories and services like Digital Commons and Creative Commons play a significant role in this regard as well.

The interface of Sci-Hub website.

Along with publications, open-access data and research tools are also important. In contrast to the highly paid professional data analysis software, the open access movement allows many publicly available research tools for advancing knowledge. For example, the Text Analysis Portal for Research (TAPoR) contains thousands of open access research tools that provide services almost similar to many paid software and tools. Also, open data repositories like Datavarse allow users to access others’ data and make use of them for producing knowledge.

Apart from these solutions, a brand-new solution is brought by the Robin Hood of science, Alexandra Elbakyan. Being a Kazakh researcher, she established a website named Sci-Hub and made more than 80 million research papers publicly available, which is nearly all the articles that remain behind the paywalls [3].

What was her driving force? The resentment towards the global publishers’ extreme capitalistic mindset, depriving the global scientific knowledge and enthusiastic communities [6]. Apart from the ethical debates, it is actually benefiting the deprived community mostly in developing and underdeveloped countries we discussed where they cannot afford the pricy scientific knowledge. Therefore, Alexandra aimed at removing all the barriers in the way of science.


Based on our discussion, we want to leave a naïve question for further debate: How would you evaluate the contemporary publication process?


  1. Bailey, C. W. (2007, February 7). What is Open Access? Digital Scholarship; Charles W. Bailey, Jr.
  2. Gowers, T. (2012, January 21). Elsevier — my part in its downfall. Gowers’s Weblog.
  3. Graber-Stiehl, I. (2018, February 8). Meet the pirate queen making academic papers free online. The Verge.
  4. Hagve, M. (2020). The money behind scientific publication. Tidsskrift for Den Norske Legeforening.
  5. Jha, A. (2012, April 9). Academic spring: how an angry maths blog sparked a scientific revolution. The Guardian.
  6. Resnick, B. (2016, April 28). Why one woman stole 50 million academic papers — and made them all free to read. Vox.
  7. Sample, I. (2012, April 24). Harvard University says it can’t afford journal publishers’ prices. The Guardian.
  8. Suber, P. (2012). Open Access. The MIT Press.
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