Soon, nobody will read academic journals illegally, because the studies worth reading will be free

Bad idea.
Bad idea.
Image: Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
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It’s a dirty open secret in academia. Scholars work very hard to prove their work is worth taxpayers’ money, but then publish it in journals that are prohibitively expensive—not just for taxpayers but academics themselves. In a 2012 memo, Harvard Library was forced to declare that the fees for such access were becoming “fiscally unsustainable.”

One way to circumvent the problem is through the use of pirating services, such as Sci-Hub. The site boasts of offering nearly 70% of all academic research. The users of the site, however, are in a legally difficult position.

The good news is that the backlash against journal subscriptions has led to a change in behavior. Researchers have increasingly been publishing work in open-access journals, which let readers download the studies free of charge. A 2014 study had found that more than half of all articles published between 2007 and 2012 were available through this route.

Now a new study has found that nearly half of all academic articles that users want to read are already freely available. These studies may or may not have been published in an open-access journal, but there is a legally free version available for a reader to download.

To arrive at this conclusion, researcher Heather Piwowar and her colleagues used data from a web-browser extension they had developed called Unpaywall. When users of the extension land on an academic article, it trawls the web to find if there are free versions to download from places such as pre-print services or those uploaded on university websites.

In an analysis of 100,000 papers queried by Unpaywall, Piwowar and her colleagues found that as many as 47% searched for studies that had a free-to-read version available. The study is yet to be peer-reviewed, but Ludo Waltman of Leiden University told Nature that it is “careful and extensive.”

This is not to say that 47% of all academic papers have free-to-read versions. That figure is only at 27%. It does show, however, that at least users of Unpaywall are more interested in studies that tend to be published in more openly accessible journals.

The finding is backed by two trends. First, academics are increasingly publishing in open-access journals. Looking at a random sample of studies published in 2015, about 45% were published in such journals. Second, studies published in open-access journals receive more citations than average. It’s not clear whether that’s to do with the quality of research or easy access, but it’s a positive sign for a more open-accessed internet.

The academic publishing industry isn’t taking this sitting down. On the one hand, it is going to the court to quash illegal access. In a recent court victory, the publishing behemoth Elsevier was awarded millions in damages from Sci-Hub. On the other hand, it is offering more open-access journals or payment options to make paywalled articles freely available. Perhaps soon no one will need to read academic articles illegally.