You Paid For This Paper. Now You Can Read It Without Paying Again

There is probably very little among the topics covered here at Hackaday that doesn’t have its roots somewhere in scientific research. Semiconductor devices for example didn’t simply pop into being in Bell Labs or Texas Instruments, the scientists and engineers who created them did so standing on the shoulders of legions of earlier researchers who discovered the precursor steps that made them possible. As many readers will know, scientific research for its own sake is expensive, so much so that much of it is funded by governments, from your taxes. The research papers with the findings are then hidden from public view behind paywalls by the publishers who distribute them, an injustice which should soon be over for Americans, thanks to a White House memorandum paving the way for federally funded research to be freely available to the public at no cost by no later than 2025.

The academic publishing business originates in the days when paper was king, and it has several tiers. Officially an academic journal is usually the product of a professional body in its field, but it is normal for the publishing itself to be contracted out to a specialist academic publishing company. They accept submissions of papers, edit them, and arrange peer reviewers, before publishing the journals. Originally this was a paper process, but while journals are still printed it’s the Internet through which they are now read. The publishers pay nothing to the researcher for their paper and often only a nominal sum to the reviewers for their input, but charge a hefty subscription for access to the content. As you might imagine it’s an extremely lucrative business, so as this Hackaday scribe saw when she worked in that industry, the publishers and the learned bodies are in no hurry to kill their golden goose.

This move to open access may make few immediate waves outside the world of scientific publishing, but it affirms the principle that taxpayers should be able to see the fruits of their spending. As such it will be of benefit to less-well-off researchers and institutions worldwide. Rest in peace Aaron Swartz, if only you could have seen this day!

White House pic: Matt H. Wade, CC BY-SA 3.0.

44 thoughts on “You Paid For This Paper. Now You Can Read It Without Paying Again

  1. While this seems like a good thing on the surface, unilateral actions like this (and much more the recent loan forgiveness) set a terrible precedent – and yes, you might argue they’re a continuation of many bad precedents spanning multiple administrations.

    Consider if this was something you didn’t agree with and congress had no oversight.

    Anyway, more hacks, less politics here IMO.

    1. Sure would be nice if our representitives were not in it purely for corporate interests. Every action that comes out of the federal government makes me think about the angles and whom it benefits and whom it craps on. The basic principle of knowledge flowing freely is a commendable goal for all humankind, worth trying for.

    2. On this, idk. It really seems like it’s the same as just adding a clause in the funding agreement that says, “by accepting funding from the USA government, you agree to make the results of that funding freely available to the citizens of the USA.”

      If the government paid for it, then, shouldn’t they have the right to dictate how it is distributed. After all, the researchers don’t have to take federal funding, so, if they want to have it behind a paywall, they can, just not with federal funds.

    3. Complaining about this article being political while dragging a bunch of politics into it is ridiculous. If you wanted less politics you could have just clicked the next button, but instead you felt you should leave specific examples of what you feel are bad politics, supposedly including this. It might help to check out the history books, but hacking and education are very much political things, and go hand-in-hand.

  2. Useless middleman is useless? Go figure. Why the publishing process waa not democrotized decades ago is beyond me.

    Gov: “we can mint and print trillions of bills and coins, text on plain paper, not possible”

    1. it’s not such a sticky thing to unravel, imo. the private funds came with conditions. i don’t know what they were but private funding sources usually negotiate in some way. the conditions may be very mild or may be very onerous. well, the public funds come with conditions too, and free access to published results should be one of them. if the conditions come into conflict, then that just means you can’t use public funds on a private project. you only get to leverage two sources of funding if they don’t impose contradicting conditions. that’s how all funding negotiation works. sometimes you can get two clients to pay for the same work, and sometimes you need to pick one client over the other.

      the question is just, what condition should the public funding come with? and i think this is a very reasonable condition.

      1. Justice is when the laws catch up with what’s been the right thing all along.

        When I was working for the gov’t and we submitted to journals, we required them to publish our papers as public domain. Of course, there it’s straightforward that 100% of my salary/etc came from public funds.

        With public-funded research, it’s a lot trickier, because funding comes from all over the place. Some from the universities, some from NIH/NSF/whatever grants, some from who-knows-where. So it’s a lot harder to say “this is public work”. My fear is that this grey zone will be used to keep copyright restrictive.

        Jenny mentions the free / cheap contribution of reviewers, which I’ll attest to, but the people arranging all the reviews and doing the editorial stuff need to get paid — it’s their full time job. In the most “ideal” scenario where all science papers are free, I wonder how the journals survive? Maybe they can apply for grant money! :)

        1. The trick is, publishers and researchers themselves suffer from paywalls because they won’t cited by people who don’t read their papers.

          In the past it was the universities and institutions that would pay for access so their researchers could access the material through the institution, but nowadays that is downright cumbersome and the researchers find it easier to go directly to open-access publications and skip the paywalled stuff rather than go through the red tape to request access through the “proper channels”.

        2. Here someone from outside of the United States.

          I got that “some from NIH/NSF/whatever grants” is “some from NIH grants, some from NSF grants, some from whatever grants”.

          And I did get the “whatever”.

          What is NSF?

          What is NIH? If it is Not Invented Here, please say so.

      2. Honestly I think it’s better for something to be legally unenforceable than to be (temporarily?) legal. See also: 3D printed guns. You shouldn’t rely on the government being nice to you to be able to do things.

  3. As described, it sounds like anyone could be a publisher. What was preventing capitalism from keeping the costs down? Is it like healthcare where government involvement limited supply or added massive barriers to entry?

    …or could anyone be a publisher? What’s the cost of filtering papers? Are there cheap publishers accepting ANYTHING, even papers generated by bots? I’d guess it would be impossible to separate seed from chaff in those situations.

    Did researchers only want to be published in discerning or respected sources since no one reads papers from the unfiltered cheaper publisher’s?

    1. Yeah, it’s about prestige I think. Well, and good quality control.

      Publishing results in “Nature” or another famous scientific magazine is a huge achievement, but there are other obscure ones that will publish anything, even without peer review. But, those ones aren’t respected, and so, publishing in them isn’t prestigious (because those have really bad quality control).

      This is the way I understand it (from an outsider perspective).

  4. Small nitpicking: I don’t know of any payment that reviewers receive (and that is OK as they are already paid). I think there is some fee for being an editor though. That makes the injustice of course even worse.

  5. If it’s similar to recent UK policy there is a big hitch.
    The UK setup, since 1 April ’22 requires grant-funded researchers to make sure their publications are open access. It doesn’t automatically fund the open access publishing process. Even wonderful not-for-profit journals such as PLOS charge to cover editing and hosting costs, which are not zero. Researchers are responsible for complying. Publishers have made this surprisingly complex, through myriad schemes and pricing policies. In some, literally mirrors (no smoke) they created ‘open versions’ of closed journals.

    This means yet another thing for researchers to do that isn’t thinking, reading, writing, doing experiments, hacking data about, helping others by providing expert advice. Or reviewing other manuscripts, for free. Or writing grants, creating jobs, teaching needy undergraduates…. … or reading hackaday…

    It’s brilliant news but may still not fix deep systemic problems caused by overly powerful private highly profitable publishers.

  6. As soon as I saw the headline, I thought of Aaron Swartz. He died fighting the good fight. This can’t come quickly enough. Human knowledge should be free for everyone. Thanks for remembering him.

  7. If you ever find yourself feeling as if you are in a similar situation to what Aaron Swartz found himself in, please reach out to people, there is no shortage of people who care, people who have the knowhow and the resources to protect you, even give you sanctuary and a new identity.

  8. Since 2013 federal agencies have posted the accepted manuscript of journal articles flowing from their funding. Articles from subscription journals got a 12 month delay. This new rule abolishes that delay but it has nothing to do with the journals.

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