I wonder why tenured professors still publish in pay-walled venues. I can understand that non-tenured professors are publication pressured, but once one gets tenured, why should one still place knowledge behind walls?

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    "...and when did you stop beating your wife?" There's a lot of hidden assumptions in this question that really need to be discussed before it can be answered effectively. Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 19:22
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    @Andrew The only assumption I see is that some tenure professors sometime publish in pay-walled venues. I'd be glad to stand corrected. Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 19:24
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    there's a lot more than that. It's implicitly assuming that most people think of OA/non-OA as a primary factor in their publication choices - some do, certainly, and credit to them... but most simply don't prioritise it. A survey released last week finds most authors weight it substantially less than most other factors. Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 19:31
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    @Andrew This is not an assumption but one possible answer to the question (which I'd upvote at it's a good one). No intent to take sides here, just looking for facts. Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 19:40
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    This question suffers from a faulty base assumption that non-paywall is inherently, globally, unarguably, categorically "better" and to be desired by all by default. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 14:03

10 Answers 10


There are lots of reasons, but high among them are the prestige issues for their co-authors, especially their non-tenured, postdoc, and student co-authors. Everyone on the author list benefits from the typically higher prestige of the traditional (and paywalled) publishing venues.

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    Agreed -- I try hard to publish in open access journals when possible and non-profit ones otherwise, but I rarely write a paper without a co-author at the career stage where he or she is seeking a job or pursuing tenure.
    – Corvus
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 18:52
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    So then the problem is prestige? If exploitative journals are viewed as more prestigious than non-exploitative journals, what can be done to fix this perception? Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 20:34
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    @BillBarth: Please pardon my bluntness, but if you don't think of non-open journals as inherently exploitative, you don't know enough about their business model. The more you learn about how they operate, the uglier it looks. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 20:53
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    @MasonWheeler Their business models vary quite a bit. Some of their business models are quite obnoxious, while others seem fine. One way or another, someone has to pay the bills of the publisher.
    – reirab
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 20:57
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    I haven't seen internal accounts. But I don't think it's necessary: in my field the reviewing and main typesetting (in the journal's format) are both conducted by academics for free. I always need to point out and fix errors introduced by a journal (or its contractor) which insists on needlessly modifying what's submitted. All costs are internal, but add zero value besides that from the (free) reviewers. And yet they still have a ~40% profit margin. Companies this inefficient & uncompetitive don't survive in a real market, and the public deserve unrestricted access to research they paid for. Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 14:41

A couple reasons come to mind:

  1. Tenured professors still care about prestige. And they still have promotions to consider - for example, from Associate to Full Professor, or if they fancy going after a Chair or Deanship.
  2. Open access publications are not (beyond perhaps their open status) inherently more virtuous as journals. It's possible that the best place to put a paper in terms of readership, audience, etc. is not an open access journal.
  3. If they're funded by the NIH, they may be content with "It will be open access in two years anyway" and not be inclined to spend their group's resources on open access charges.
  4. Linked to 1, just because you're tenured doesn't mean your funding is secured. Many tenured faculty can't necessarily sit back and make non-optimal solutions "for the good of knowledge" when they have postdocs, grad students and lab staff who still need to get paid.
  5. The aforementioned grad students, postdocs, etc. who are also on the paper might benefit from a more prestigious publication.

Even if a faculty member has settled into a tenured full professorship they still typically have annual evaluations for the purpose of determining pay raises, and having publications in highly ranked journals can get them a better evaluation.


I wonder why tenured professors still publish in pay-walled venues. I can understand that non-tenured professors are publication pressured, but once one gets tenured, why should one still place knowledge behind walls?

Who says they are placing knowledge behind walls? In many fields it's perfectly feasible to publish in pay-walled journals but still make the papers publicly available (through the arXiv, institutional repositories, etc.). If someone does this, then their knowledge is no less available for having been published in a non-free journal. Of course not everyone takes advantage of this opportunity, but that's generally because they don't care about the issue, not because they were constrained before getting tenure.

In the fields which have no such option, this question becomes much more relevant, but think about the psychological difficulties. You may have strong opinions about where it's reasonable to publish, but your coauthors may not share your opinions. Do you really want to spend the rest of your career debating this issue every time you publish a paper? Are you willing to give up on collaboration opportunities because you fear your collaborators might insist on publishing in venues you disapprove of? Are you willing to risk looking like a jerk by insisting that your principles are more important than your coauthors' careers? It might be the right thing to do in some abstract sense, but it's not an easy decision.

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    +1 for mentioning self-archiving. I sometimes have to publish in paywalled journals, but every paper I've ever written can be downloaded for free from my website.
    – Corvus
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 18:50
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    @Corvus I'm sure you know this, but your website will go away. You may want to look into more permanent ways of making your work accessible.
    – Raphael
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 12:11
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    Excellent point, Raphael! +1 For a while I was also depositing everything in my institution's digital repository, but they stopped supporting this.
    – Corvus
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 19:12
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    @Floris Handing over copyright does not automatically mean that you may not put the paper on your website, it depends on the publishers policy. And even if putting up the original PDF is prohibited, your “own” version (before the proof stage, and PDF compiled by you not the journal) may be different. In physics, at least, uploading to arXiv seems to be universally accepted, so why not on your own website?
    – xebtl
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 8:09
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    @Floris I would hold against: (1) It depends on which journals you publish in; e.g., the Physical Review journals AFAIK allow at least arXiv, self-archiving, reproduction of papers in dissertations. I have not run a statistic, but I think many physicists publish mostly in these journals. (2) What really interests me is what is tolerated, not what is strictly legal. Nullus actore nullus iudex, as they say in law :-)
    – xebtl
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 6:13

Many high-impact journals introduced a paywall to recover new costs when they began offering articles in electronic form in addition to the traditional print publications. Despite the growing consensus in the science community that journal impact factor (JIF) correlates poorly with the actual "impact" or quality of individual research articles1, having Science/Nature/Cell publications can make a huge difference in one's career development2. This doesn't stop at tenure either: the ability to get grants, acceptance into prestigious scientific societies, and so on depend on the impact of one's research.

1Just because you publish your paper in Science or Nature doesn't mean it's a good paper (due to variation in the review process, politics, etc). That said, a lot of really good science done by great scientists does get published in high-impact journals, and these journals by far have the widest readership.

2Academic science is very competitive, usually with tens or hundreds of applicants for each new professorship position. When there is no possible way to critically assess the quality and impact of every single publication of every single applicant, the journal in which it was published is a commonly (ab)used heuristic.

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    Just because you publish your paper in Science or Nature doesn't mean it's a good paper — That's putting it mildly.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 4:46

I am a mathematician (full professor in a top ten US pure mathematics department).

In pure mathematics, the top four or five journals (in terms of prestige) are almost universally agreed upon; perhaps the least ambiguous three in the top five are Annals, Inventiones, and JAMS. None of these is open access: Annals is published by a university press, JAMS by a professional society, and Inventiones by a commercial publisher.

These journals have earned their prestige over a long time, as a combination of various factors: e.g. the quality of work they've published in the past, the make-up of the editorial board, the qualities of the referees they employ, and their current very high standards of acceptance. This last point is crucial: their standards for acceptance are very high --- papers they accept are not only correct (the minimal standard of acceptance in any journal, one hopes), but of fundamental importance for the field. If you are on a committee reviewing a candidate's CV and you see a paper published in one of these journals, you can be quite confident that it is top-level work.

For a post-doc, having one or two papers in one of these journals, together with one or two additional papers in journals that are almost as good, is basically enough to guarantee a tenure-track position in a (roughly) top twenty university.

But for a senior researcher, publishing in these journals also serves as strong signal about the quality of one's on-going research.

Many senior researchers are still ambitious! E.g., they might want to move institutions (for geographic reasons, or to move to a higher rep. department, or to raise their salary, or ...), or obtain competitive grants, or win prizes, or be awarded named chairs. Essentially any competitive award in academia is based on the quality of the candidate's research, and publishing in top journals is a strong signal for this. (It's not the only such signal, since peer review, through letters, or grant panels, or prize committees, is also very important; but publishing in top journals is still an excellent and efficient way to signal quality research: it's something that a committee member can easily discern just by skimming over a CV, and it's a concrete fact that a letter writer or other supporter of the candidate can draw attention to.)

Personally, I try not to publish in journals that belong to commercial publishers, because I agree with many others that (at this point in history) this publishing model is basically rent-seeking from the academic community. I am happy to publish in journals like Annals or JAMS though (if I should be so lucky as to write papers at that level), since they are published by non-commercial publishers (though not open access), and I have some interest in continuing to accrue the resulting prestige.

However, many of my co-authors are more vested in accruing prestige through publishing in top journals, for some of the reasons described above, and for them, if a paper is at the level that it could plausibly be published in one of these top journals, career-wise it doesn't make sense not to submit it to one of them. It's not reasonable to always submit to exactly the same one or two journals, and so for this reason I end up publishing in commercially-published journals from time to time.

As a side note, CUP recently established an open access mathematics journal whose goal is to be at the same level as Annals and JAMS. My impression, though, is that (even with a very prestigious editorial board) it's not taking off as quickly as one might like. One problem is that younger people who have top quality work are often reluctant to publish in a new journal; it's riskier than publishing in a journal whose reputation has been cemented as top quality for decades. And even senior people have the concern that the journal won't establish or maintain the reputation that it's aiming for, and so are reluctant to "waste" a top-level paper by publishing it there.

In this sense, trying to create a new, maybe open-access, journal that serves the same prestige-signaling function as the current top commercially published journals involves something of a prisoner's dilemma: if top-level researchers simultaneously agreed to grant the journal the desired level of prestige, and all submitted their best work their, it would indeed become a top level journal, and continue to attract good submissions.

Variations of this scenario have succeeded in mathematics. (Not with open access journals, as far as I know, but with very successful non-commercially published journals such as Geom. Top..) But, as we all know, it is unfortunately somewhat exceptional for a real-life prisoner's dilemma to be resolved in a positive manner.

  • One way for new journals to bootstrap might be to find a way to operate in parallel with the established journals. I haven't read the copy license text used by the "big boys", but depending on how it's written there may be room to come in at a slightly different angle -- perhaps start out just publishing abstracts or slightly popularized descriptions of the work -- build a reputation, and then try to get some folks to start giving them first-publication material. Or jump on a new specialty before the others can, again build rep as the place to find some of th best work, and expand from there.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 16:25
  • ... which is, after all, how the current folks established themselves.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 16:26
  • A hyperlink to the OA CUP journal would really improve this post! Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 23:08

Since folks objected, let me simplify my answer to the key point:

Because the journals they want to publish in decided to paywall their websites.

To change this, you can create an equally (or more) respected journal (or equivalent) which isn't paywalled, and/or find a way to encourage parallel publication in non-paywalled form, and/or find a way to convince the journals that paywalling is not necessary.

I wouldn't be surprised if one or more of those eventually happens. I'm also not surprised it's taking a while for that to happen.

[In this form, I think I'm probably overlapping strongly with what others have said, and may kill this answer.]

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    It's not necessarily clear that the costs are so high, or need to be: this is a subject of considerable controversy. Some new journals appear to be able to provide all these services at very little cost. Ironically, the features you mention (curation, editing, review) typically have no cost at all: editors and reviewers work on a volunteer basis. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 1:29
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    If you can get the subscriber rate up, costs per issue can go way down. Problem is, it isn't clear that the reverse will happen. It may require an entirely new generation of journals to cross that barrier, folks who don't have a prior investment they have to break away from and in fact can only break into the market by innovating. That's actually the most common mode in which technological change occurs... and that really is what we are looking at here.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 2:03
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    "professionally-edited, professionally reviewed journals" -- doesn't always feel this way. The "professional" part, that is.
    – Raphael
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 12:12
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    "The business model for those journals is a relatively expensive one" -> FYI: Why are journal subscriptions so expensive? Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 0:37
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    This answer is pure bilgewater. The author does the typesetting; the reviewers are not compensated; the single paper purchase option has always existed...I could go on and on. Almost every sentence is misguided or outright false.
    – James King
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 16:57

(For the record, it is indeed about "status/prestige", if not for the senior person, for junior co-authors, who are invariably judged by the most conservative possible standards (the convenience of which is that more negative conclusions are allowed...), ...)

My slightly-new point here is that "tenure" does not promise good pay raises, a decent office, civil teaching assignments, or anything else. I don't know whether it ever did, but certainly in the current climate in academe in the U.S., every year we (=faculty, in my apparently highly-rated R1 university department) are required to write up a report on our activities of the most-recent five years. Sounds reasonable, until one learns that "good" or "very good" in all categories (research, mentoring/teaching, service) is only worth a 1.8 percent pay increase...?!? Sure, inflation in the U.S. has been low... but...

So, to fight for NSF funding (whose decision procedures have been "streamlined", which may operationally mean "degraded" to using second-hand metrics to judge things...) for that extra month or two summer salary: bang, ultra-traditional notions of publication (again, if only because there are too many obviously-qualified applicants, so the issue is looking for excuses to disqualify, rather than looking for reasons to "qualify").

At some point in one's life, in R1 situations in STEM fields, one might contemplate the very real issue of whether one wants to budget one's household, family, life on an extra 2/9 salary, or not. If "yes", then this game playing is obviously mandatory, because without it one can't compete for those very-limited bonus-resources.

(The glee with which for-profit publishers greet this tendency is surely limitless, ...)

  • I must add that the issues about "curation" or "careful review" and so on are of essentially no interest to me, even without addressing issues of conflict-of-interest with referees who have reasons to want to delay/sabotage their competitors, etc. I suppose often it's not really conscious unethical behavior, but I have repeatedly witnessed it. And, then, there're other problems with the self-referential editor-referee cycle. Once-upon-a-time, maybe a little less bad than now (in mathematics), but always problematical, and now worse, due to constrained resources for which people compete. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 23:39
  • ... and, decades ago, I did start advocating that the status-enhancing venues should be left to the tenure-needing people, abandoned by the got-tenure-already people, and I was surprised at the angry reactions I got from (well-tenured) people. Pro-tip, kids: don't drink the Kool-Aid, but maybe pretend that you did, as necessary. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 23:41

Surprised none of the answers have mentioned this.

It's free.

If you publish open access, you have to find money to pay the article processing charge somewhere. It's not that you can't find the money - but if you publish in paywalled venues, you don't even have to find the money in the first place.

  • Why am I the first to upvote this? That said, "free" would be better "free (for the author)". Someone still has to pay the publisher, at least their cost, and in non-OA, it's the reader that has to pay (directly or indirectly), not the author. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 19:01

Perhaps their particular niche has no open-source high-reputation venue. It still costs money to operate a publication site, and if it produces a print edition there might not be enough interest in the publication through advertising alone to cover its costs, and maybe only subscriptions are enough. I mean, how many people are going to want to read "Thumb Amputee Monthly," a (albeit fictitious) journal dealing with surgery techniques for restoring amputated thumbs and permanently interconnecting prosthetic thumbs?

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    With a few exceptions, my experience is that academic journals generally don't carry any advertising at all (as you say, there's no market). Costs are covered by subscription fees, publication charges paid by authors, or in some cases, donated by universities or other sponsors. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 1:25
  • @NateEldredge IIRC advertising is a lot more common in clinically-oriented medical journals, but that's not my field so I can't say for sure! Agree it's a pretty minor factor for most titles. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 8:42

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