Why my newest paper is paywalled

I’ve just returned the proofs for my latest paper. You can read about it, and access the preprint, here; or you can wait a little while and read the journal version in Proceedings B. Or, maybe you can. You see, it will be paywalled.*

Now, some folks find that scandalous: information should be free (or at least, that’s a common refrain. I have some sympathy, and I had the choice: I could have paid to make this paper open access. And all else being equal, yes: I’d rather my papers be open access than paywalled.

But that sentiment, noble though it may be, is uselessly naïve. Because, of course, all else is not equal. Like almost any other decision I make in my research career, whether to publish paywalled or open access one involves totting up costs and benefits to find the best – not the perfect – option. Over the last decade or so, some of my papers have been open access, and some have been paywalled (sort of – more about that below). I don’t expect this to change.

So what did I think about, in deciding not to publish my latest paper open-access? Well, there would have been costs and benefits to my doing so. The costs would have been substantial; and the benefits smaller (I think) than often suggested.

First, cost. Publishing costs vary dramatically across journals, of course, from nothing up to $10,000 or more for a paper. But in most cases, publishing paywalled will either cost nothing or incur some “page charges”; while publishing open-access will incur a flat, and considerably larger, open-access fee. Thus, as a rule it will cost me as an author more to publish open access. That’s not surprising: publishing a journal costs money, and if money isn’t coming in from subscribers**, then it has to come from author-paid open access-fees. OK, it isn’t quite that simple – some journals are subsidized while others are for-profit, some are cheaper and some are shockingly expensive, and so on. But once a journal, or a class of journals, is chosen, then in general open access costs (me, or rather, my research grants) money. For my latest paper, it would have cost about $3,000.

Now, benefits. There’s no question that there’s a benefit to having my paper free to read, directly from the journal’s web site. But: at least for my paper, I’ll argue that that benefit is much smaller than it’s often made out to be – for two main reasons. First, the paywall is very, very easy to circumvent. You can read my paper in its preprint formt, which is virtually identical if not as prettily formatted. You can email me and I’ll send you a copy. You can ask your university library if they subscribe to the journal, and if not, you can ask them to fetch you a copy by interlibrary loan. You can… well, I’ve hardly scratched the surface here. The set of people who want to read my paper, but are unable to access it despite the paywall, will be very small. Second, while I think my paper is completely fascinating, I’ll admit that it probably will be fascinating to academics – and those are the folks for whom the paywall is least likely to be a hindrance. I don’t expect the general public to read this paper (although I’d be pleased if the odd person was interested).***  So, publishing open-access might increase readership for my paper a little, but I’m skeptical that it would increase it significantly.

So should I pay the $3,000? I could, reasoning that even if not many extra people read the paper as a result, I’d be striking a moral blow for free access to information. But here’s the thing: I could also use that same $3,000 to run another study, or even better, to hire another undergraduate or to pay my graduate students more. My research funding is finite, so it’s definitely a zero sum game: more for open access fees, less for student salaries. [At least, this is true until deep system-wide change diverts money from library journal-subscription budgets into researcher publication-charge budgets. While it’s obvious that this is where things need to move, I expect it will take decades – to be optimistic.] I’m pretty sure that I can make a much bigger difference to science supporting early career scientists than I can giving everyone in the world slightly easier access to my papers.

As I re-read this, it sounds like I’m against open-access publication. I’m absolutely not; I’m just thinking realistically about its cost-benefit ratio. My next paper might be open-access, as my next-to-latest one was. But this latest paper is paywalled (so it’s a little bit harder for you to access) but my students are better supported. I’m happy with that.

© Stephen Heard  January 24, 2023 

Note: It will probably take about three minutes for someone, maybe here but more likely on Twitter, to ignore the argument I’ve made and explain how immoral it is that my work is paywalled. There are a lot of open-access advocates out there. Some of them hold well informed, carefully reasoned, and nuanced positions. The others are loud.

*^For those not familiar with academic publishing lingo: a “paywalled” paper is one that can be accessed only by those who purchase access (whether one time or subscription): think Sports Illustrated or The New York Times. The opposite is an “open access” paper, that can be freely accessed by anyone without payment: think Wikipedia. But the distinction is not nearly as clear-cut as that; read on for the nuance.

**^Or, rarely, from someone who pays the one-time-access fee. I’d love to know how often that happens. I bet it’s really rare – and if you read on you’ll see why it should be.

***^And that’s true for almost everything I publish, research-wise. Yes, our paper on humour in article titles***LinkIfTitleFunny got some media attention (for example, on CBC Radio’s As It Happens; I’m at 17:38), but even so I doubt few who read the media coverage read the paper. It’s not that what I do is uninteresting or unimportant; it’s that the scientific paper is a form of writing designed to be read by other scientists.

4 thoughts on “Why my newest paper is paywalled

  1. Michael Wiener

    You’ve made a sensible choice as an individual working within a system you don’t control. However, the publishing system is broken. In my field, none of the important work of doing research, writing papers, deciding on reviewers, performing peer review, and making a final decision on publication are paid for by the journals. The companies running journals are superfluous. They soak up money and get in the way of spreading knowledge. I’ve been pleased to see more journals abandon paper versions and make papers available faster and un-paywalled.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yeah, part of the problem here is just the difficulty of aligning incentives, and funds flow, among actors. The issues you mention (whole big topic!!) are lesser for society journals, but even there you have flows of money through researchers, through libraries, and through publishers. Straightening this out will NOT be easy!


  2. James

    These arguments and thought processes are very common among academics.
    I’ve spent a lot of time working on open access and trying to promote it and I’ve got to say you made the right call.
    Forget the purists and ideological zealots. Do the best you can with the time and money you have.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Recommended reads #206 | Small Pond Science

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