A Look at “Paywall: The Business of Scholarship”

With top academic publishers like Elsevier holding a 35-40% profit margin and for-profit academic publishers earning $25.2 billion a year, Jason Schmitt began to wonder about the consequences of paywalls on access to scientific research. His questions led to his October 2018 documentary film, Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, where he questioned publishing practices and the public’s limited access to information.

According to IMDb, while filming, Schmitt says he was struck by the global energy and enthusiasm toward open access and the strong resistance to the movement by many of the world’s top publishers. “Further, I found that the funds paid to academic publishers are heavily burdening the higher education market, contributing to the rising tuition fees at all universities, the closure of many institutions and, ultimately, limiting science and progress.”

How it works:

“In order to make money, a traditional publisher – say, a magazine – first has to cover a multitude of costs: it pays writers for the articles; it employs editors to commission, shape and check the articles; and it pays to distribute the finished product to subscribers and retailers. All of this is expensive, and successful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.

The way to make money from a scientific article looks very similar, except that scientific publishers manage to duck most of the actual costs. Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.” – The Guardian

Schmitt’s film shares the stories of those who have been restricted, limited, or encumbered by the current publishing model; He highlights the profits behind commercial publishers, the strained library budgets that pay for the subscriptions, and the inequality researchers at small institutions face regarding access around the world. Schmitt advocates for an open access model; a model that offers access to information regardless of social, financial, or political background.

ECS is among those committed to eliminating barriers for authors who want to publish peer-reviewed, high-quality content for free. As a supporter of open access, ECS has participated in International Open Access Week for the fourth consecutive year, taking down the ECS Digital Library paywalls and making over 141,000 scientific articles and abstracts free and accessible to everyone. This year alone, this participation has drawn in over 36,440 new visitors, bringing in the most downloads ever received during a single month in the history of the ECS Digital Library.

These exceptional upswings in usage are indicative of two key things: (1) the far-reaching value of ECS publications, and (2) the economic barriers that continue to obstruct scientists around the world from access to high-quality, peer-reviewed research.

Due to this need, ECS has also launched the Free the Science initiative in support of open access, which aims to eliminate these barriers for researchers through an embrace of open science and transformative change in the traditional models of communicating scholarly research.

The Society is committed to its long-term goal to make its publishing model 100% open access and encourages all those who believe in the open dissemination of science to donate to the Free the Science. Help make ECS research free to access all year round.

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