lefty astronomy: the PAYWALL & open access

willb/ August 23, 2019/ Lefty Astronomy/ 0 comments

In your research, whether you’re an art historian or a astrophysicist, you’ve likely run up against a paywall. Berated with appeals either to login, sign-up, or get out, these moments can feel frustrating. Whether you move on, referencing a similar paper you have access to, finding a pre-print of the paper on an online resource, or simply asking the author personally, you’ve likely encountered bits of information you simply can’t pay for.

If you have the luck of being associated with a university, then piggybacking on their network or using their library services, you might have been able to circumnavigate these paywalls. But, as it turns out, college only lasts so long, and not everyone who needs access to research (publicly funded or otherwise) is associated with such institutions.

These paywalls exist because of capitalism’s suspicious tendency to develop monopolies, that is, the publishers of a research paper, owning that publication, are the only supplier of a commodity (the information in the research paper). Whether this information is medical breakthroughs, field-shifting discoveries, or simply a small piece of a research paper, this monopoly on information means that publishers can fix their prices, charging libraries higher and higher prices for access to their journals.

“…Elsevier is a pain in the neck for us in Africa, because their prices are too high for us and they don’t want to come down.”

Helena R. Asamoah-Hassan Ph.D (Kwame Nkrumah University Of Science and Technology librarian) in an interview for Paywall: the Business of Scholarship

One of the most egregious publishers, Elsevier, just took a blow to their 30%+ profit margin. Recently, the University of California library dropped their contract with Elsevier. UMass Amherst, big brother to my own current institution Amherst College, is considering doing the same when their agreement is up for review.

“If you have some wonderful idea… you like to think its because you had some inspiration, or you worked harder than anyone else, but you don’t like to think its because you had privileged access to information.”

Paul Ginsparg (founder of ARXIV.org) in an interview for Paywall: the Business of Scholarship film

I asked the Amherst College Library about their partnerships, and how they obtain access for students and faculty. My questions were answered by a member of the Serials department, who asked not to be quoted. What I learned is that the Library has taken a tepid step towards rebuking the yoke of the monopoly publishers. For publications that are high traffic, the Library maintains subscriptions and backlog. The Library cancelled its subscription packages to the major power brokers of the publishing world, instead opting to use pre-paid tokens that allow Amherst users to access individual articles – each access charges the library and costs less than a subscription to the publisher.

A drawn image of a black raven holding a red key in its beak.

The world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan, has produced one of the most widely used, user-friendliest, and very illegal open access service called Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub uses leaked credentials to source the journal you request, and delivers it as a .pdf for you to download, no questions asked. It can currently be found at its .tw domain, here.

Its creator, Alexandra Elbakyan, has been described as “Science’s Pirate Queen” and alongside Sci-Hub has faced numerous copyright infringement charges, but by moving the sci-hub domain has remained accessible. While I don’t think it’d be a great idea for me to actively condone the usage of such a service, I will comment on its efficacy and the aid the service has undoubtedly provided to researchers worldwide, especially in under-served countries where important research is occurring.

Elbakyan, inspired by communist ideals, writes “[the socialization of science] is a very well-known concept in former USSR countries. See this poster from USSR which says Ā«Science and Communism are inseparableĀ»” on her blog.

Elbakyan represents a new generation of scientists and science communicators, those who not only believe in free and open information, but who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. In response to Verge’s comparisons between her work and “the Western association between democracy and information openness.” She writes “the word democracy was discredited and got bad meaning [sic]: as a kind of a political doctrine used by Western countries as an excuse to attack and destroy other countries.”

While these notions of free access may seem new to the pay-walled of the world, within this paradigm of socialized science, we can begin to navigate how our work impacts the world around us, and how we can better ourselves and our understandings of the world in order to build towards a better, more open, future.


Thank you for taking the time to read this lefty astronomy post! If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I’d highly recommend watching Paywall: the Business of Scholarship, which is available free to stream or download here. If you’re an astronomy or physics researcher looking to circumvent a paywall, but aren’t ready to don your eye-patch and peg-leg, I recommend arXiv.org, Cornell’s e-print archive, where most astronomers post pre-prints of their journals openly. If you have any comments, questions, or concerns with this post, please let me know. Thank you again, and happy researching!


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About willb

I'm Will, an undergraduate astronomer studying transition disks, direct imaging, and planet accretion and formation at the Follette Lab at Amherst College. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

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