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ScienceSIOSSpiegeloog 417: Science

From Public Findings to Private Journals

By February 25, 2022March 5th, 2022No Comments

 

About the Author

Elias is a final-year business administration student specializing in finance at the UvA.

 

About the Author

Elias is a final-year business administration student specializing in finance at the UvA.

 

 

 

During my exchange semester abroad, I was confronted with the reality of a vast difference between universities’ ability to provide their students access to academic publications. Used to the University of Amsterdam’s VPN that gives you access to virtually all scientific journals, I was perplexed to find out that not all my group mates were able to contribute to our project equally. They could not use the same resources I had access to, and instead had to rely on the materials provided in their previous courses. Together, we realized that although we were all university students in respectable universities, our access to education was very different.

This led me to investigate the underlying reasons for the inequality. It should be first noted that the UvA’s incentives as a research university are different from the institutions that focus more on practical applications of knowledge. This is reflected in the large proportion of the UvA’s annual budget devoted to research expenses, namely €218.6 million. Evidently, with our university being connected to numerous recognized research centers and institutes, our training is directed toward developing theory and methodology within our respective subjects. From very early on in our studies, we are trained to both compose and analyze research articles and proposals, ultimately leading to the ability to critically evaluate academic work. If an educational institution such as the one I spent my exchange semester is not a research university, why would they need to provide their students access to academic publications? In the end, these students do not have the training to read and critically analyze scientific papers. This notion however hugely contradicts the open science movement that attempts to make research accessible to all of society, not just academics, and especially not just academics from high-ranking institutions. Indeed, the problem of unequal access to research seemed to be a lot larger than I initially thought.

“Although the research itself is ultimately funded by taxpayers, the population still cannot access it for free.”

Clearly, this problem needed to be approached from a wider perspective. What are the institutions that fund academic research, and where does all this research end up? According to the EuroStat report in 2020, the member states of the European Union spent approximately 22% of their €311 billion budget on higher education. Moreover, a report published by the European Commission in 2011 estimated that approximately 70% of university funding within the European Union comes directly from governments. Knowing that these sectors run mostly on taxpayer money, it becomes evident that most of the published academic research is funded by taxpayers. But who publishes this research? Academic journals. As explained by Dr. Kamila Markram on TEDx Talks in 2017, acting as gatekeepers, journals hold 90% of all published research behind a paywall. An article by Vox (Resnick & Belluz, 2019) shows that as an example, for the around 17.000 students’ University of Virginia, the cost of access to Elsevier journals is approximately €1.6 million per year. Together with the costs of other journal packages, the university spends around 40% of its collections budget to provide its students the possibility to access academic journals (UVA Library, n.d.). Knowing that compared to the University of Virginia, the University of Amsterdam hosts almost double the number of students that need access to papers, it is reasonable to assume their costs to be even higher. Moreover, Vox’s closer look into the spending on academic journals at university libraries revealed a staggering 521% rise from 1986 to 2014, which cannot entirely be explained by inflation.

Here, we see that although the research itself is ultimately funded by taxpayers, the population still cannot access it for free. One often-heard explanation for this is that the public will eventually benefit from the findings in terms of, for example, better health care. By acting as filters on the quality of findings, the journals are able to separate the wheat from the chaff and contribute to faster advancements in science. Another explanation for the gatekeeping would be that it is a particular case of rent-seeking, the practice of increasing a firm’s own wealth without adding value to the economy (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.). Normally, companies combine resources and human capital to create a product that fills a need in the market, therefore creating value. Academic journals, however, seem to merely serve as the turning point of the so-called public good into a private good, as the merging of resources into a scientific article has already occurred at the level of individual researchers and their respective teams. Because of the journals’ position, there is no competition in the market that could pressure them to lower their prices to gain more customers. As there will always be a need for access to academic research, the journals are therefore able to raise their fees without losing revenue. Evidently, this profit-driven approach will lead to wealthier establishments being able to get more research reviewed than universities with smaller budgets.

“A larger scale change from the side of the academic industry is required.”

Although the general reason for the unequal access to scientific research is the uneven distribution of funding, the solution to this problem is not a simple “increase the university’s budget for research”. Instead, a larger scale change from the side of the academic industry is required. However, combining equal access with other open science practices such as transparent and extensive peer-review processes appears to pose another financial challenge: by lowering subscription fees so that smaller institutions can access the journals, other costs such as the article processing charges would have to be higher. This issue is partially what led Nature Neuroscience to recently announce its €9.500 open access article processing fee (“Nature neuroscience offers open access publishing”, 2022), turning the problem of unequal access into unequal possibilities to publish.

Evidently, the transition costs and the timeframe in which a switch to full open science could realistically be made should be calculated, requiring extensive collaboration within the academic world. Moreover, the resolving of a large-scale problem like this would possibly require intervention by governments and supranational organizations such as the European Union. Due to the intercontinental difference in economic culture, the change to open science could occur at different paces in the U.S. compared to the European Union, perhaps being even more conceivable in the latter. Nevertheless, it is necessary that these entities, together with educational institutions, take action on protecting the taxpayer money by efforts influencing the market. The changes could be achieved through regulating the market at a macro level, and changing the job description of researchers at a micro level.

In the end, we can only see further by standing on the shoulders of giants. But how can one stand on these shoulders if the giants are out of our reach?

References

-Eurostat. (2021, 29 november). R&D expenditure in the EU at 2.3% of GDP in 2020. Retrieved on 10 february 2022, from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/ddn-20211129-2
-Joint Research Centre, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Pérez, S., Dominicis, L., Fernández-Zubieta, A. (2011). European university funding and financial autonomy : a study on the degree of diversification of university budget and the share of competitive funding, Publications Office. https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2791/55199
-Nature Neuroscience offers open access publishing. (2022). Nature Neuroscience, 25(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-021-00995-2
-Open Science can save the planet | Kamila MARKRAM | TEDxBrussels. (2017, 17 april). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPtP6-nAjJ0&t=69s
-Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press.
-Resnick, B., & Belluz, J. (2019, 10 juli). The open access wars: how to free science from academic paywalls. Vox. Retrieved on 10 February 2022, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/3/18271538/open-access-elsevier-california-sci-hub-academic-paywalls
-UVA Library. (n.d.). Collections disclosures. https://www.library.virginia.edu/collections/disclosures. Retrieved on 10 February 2022, from https://www.library.virginia.edu/collections/disclosures

During my exchange semester abroad, I was confronted with the reality of a vast difference between universities’ ability to provide their students access to academic publications. Used to the University of Amsterdam’s VPN that gives you access to virtually all scientific journals, I was perplexed to find out that not all my group mates were able to contribute to our project equally. They could not use the same resources I had access to, and instead had to rely on the materials provided in their previous courses. Together, we realized that although we were all university students in respectable universities, our access to education was very different.

This led me to investigate the underlying reasons for the inequality. It should be first noted that the UvA’s incentives as a research university are different from the institutions that focus more on practical applications of knowledge. This is reflected in the large proportion of the UvA’s annual budget devoted to research expenses, namely €218.6 million. Evidently, with our university being connected to numerous recognized research centers and institutes, our training is directed toward developing theory and methodology within our respective subjects. From very early on in our studies, we are trained to both compose and analyze research articles and proposals, ultimately leading to the ability to critically evaluate academic work. If an educational institution such as the one I spent my exchange semester is not a research university, why would they need to provide their students access to academic publications? In the end, these students do not have the training to read and critically analyze scientific papers. This notion however hugely contradicts the open science movement that attempts to make research accessible to all of society, not just academics, and especially not just academics from high-ranking institutions. Indeed, the problem of unequal access to research seemed to be a lot larger than I initially thought.

“Although the research itself is ultimately funded by taxpayers, the population still cannot access it for free.”

Clearly, this problem needed to be approached from a wider perspective. What are the institutions that fund academic research, and where does all this research end up? According to the EuroStat report in 2020, the member states of the European Union spent approximately 22% of their €311 billion budget on higher education. Moreover, a report published by the European Commission in 2011 estimated that approximately 70% of university funding within the European Union comes directly from governments. Knowing that these sectors run mostly on taxpayer money, it becomes evident that most of the published academic research is funded by taxpayers. But who publishes this research? Academic journals. As explained by Dr. Kamila Markram on TEDx Talks in 2017, acting as gatekeepers, journals hold 90% of all published research behind a paywall. An article by Vox (Resnick & Belluz, 2019) shows that as an example, for the around 17.000 students’ University of Virginia, the cost of access to Elsevier journals is approximately €1.6 million per year. Together with the costs of other journal packages, the university spends around 40% of its collections budget to provide its students the possibility to access academic journals (UVA Library, n.d.). Knowing that compared to the University of Virginia, the University of Amsterdam hosts almost double the number of students that need access to papers, it is reasonable to assume their costs to be even higher. Moreover, Vox’s closer look into the spending on academic journals at university libraries revealed a staggering 521% rise from 1986 to 2014, which cannot entirely be explained by inflation.

Here, we see that although the research itself is ultimately funded by taxpayers, the population still cannot access it for free. One often-heard explanation for this is that the public will eventually benefit from the findings in terms of, for example, better health care. By acting as filters on the quality of findings, the journals are able to separate the wheat from the chaff and contribute to faster advancements in science. Another explanation for the gatekeeping would be that it is a particular case of rent-seeking, the practice of increasing a firm’s own wealth without adding value to the economy (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.). Normally, companies combine resources and human capital to create a product that fills a need in the market, therefore creating value. Academic journals, however, seem to merely serve as the turning point of the so-called public good into a private good, as the merging of resources into a scientific article has already occurred at the level of individual researchers and their respective teams. Because of the journals’ position, there is no competition in the market that could pressure them to lower their prices to gain more customers. As there will always be a need for access to academic research, the journals are therefore able to raise their fees without losing revenue. Evidently, this profit-driven approach will lead to wealthier establishments being able to get more research reviewed than universities with smaller budgets.

“A larger scale change from the side of the academic industry is required.”

Although the general reason for the unequal access to scientific research is the uneven distribution of funding, the solution to this problem is not a simple “increase the university’s budget for research”. Instead, a larger scale change from the side of the academic industry is required. However, combining equal access with other open science practices such as transparent and extensive peer-review processes appears to pose another financial challenge: by lowering subscription fees so that smaller institutions can access the journals, other costs such as the article processing charges would have to be higher. This issue is partially what led Nature Neuroscience to recently announce its €9.500 open access article processing fee (“Nature neuroscience offers open access publishing”, 2022), turning the problem of unequal access into unequal possibilities to publish.

Evidently, the transition costs and the timeframe in which a switch to full open science could realistically be made should be calculated, requiring extensive collaboration within the academic world. Moreover, the resolving of a large-scale problem like this would possibly require intervention by governments and supranational organizations such as the European Union. Due to the intercontinental difference in economic culture, the change to open science could occur at different paces in the U.S. compared to the European Union, perhaps being even more conceivable in the latter. Nevertheless, it is necessary that these entities, together with educational institutions, take action on protecting the taxpayer money by efforts influencing the market. The changes could be achieved through regulating the market at a macro level, and changing the job description of researchers at a micro level.

In the end, we can only see further by standing on the shoulders of giants. But how can one stand on these shoulders if the giants are out of our reach?

References

-Eurostat. (2021, 29 november). R&D expenditure in the EU at 2.3% of GDP in 2020. Retrieved on 10 february 2022, from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/ddn-20211129-2
-Joint Research Centre, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Pérez, S., Dominicis, L., Fernández-Zubieta, A. (2011). European university funding and financial autonomy : a study on the degree of diversification of university budget and the share of competitive funding, Publications Office. https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2791/55199
-Nature Neuroscience offers open access publishing. (2022). Nature Neuroscience, 25(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-021-00995-2
-Open Science can save the planet | Kamila MARKRAM | TEDxBrussels. (2017, 17 april). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPtP6-nAjJ0&t=69s
-Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press.
-Resnick, B., & Belluz, J. (2019, 10 juli). The open access wars: how to free science from academic paywalls. Vox. Retrieved on 10 February 2022, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/3/18271538/open-access-elsevier-california-sci-hub-academic-paywalls
-UVA Library. (n.d.). Collections disclosures. https://www.library.virginia.edu/collections/disclosures. Retrieved on 10 February 2022, from https://www.library.virginia.edu/collections/disclosures
 
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