60

Is it possible to get a refund from a publisher if I bought an article that contains a major flaw (i.e.,one that invalidates the main results or the main conclusions)? Assume the article was bought through one of the main academic publication's paywall.

  • 14
    Wouldn't that refund hinge upon whether you can still use the article? If you found a flaw, as you describe, you might end up publishing a paper superseding the results from the flawed article, at which point the publisher might see no reason to refund anything. – O. R. Mapper Nov 10 '15 at 16:33
  • 22
    The analogous question at Movies.SE would of course be: can I get a refund on my movie tickets if I didn't like the film? – Stephan Kolassa Nov 10 '15 at 16:36
  • 17
    @StephanKolassa Yes for movies, some theaters have a policy to refund the customer if he leaves within X minutes after the movie starts. – Franck Dernoncourt Nov 10 '15 at 16:39
  • 16
    @FranckDernoncourt If journals refunded fees if people didn't finish a paper, they would immediately go out of business. – Ellen Spertus Nov 10 '15 at 17:43
  • 15
    EU Consumer Rights Directive gives a 14-day time period to ask for refund for digital goods (including ebooks) unless the seller explicitly tells you that you will begin downloading it and lose your right to refund. – Hassassin Nov 10 '15 at 20:02
128

Of course you can request one - just send an email. You'll brighten up the publisher's office for the afternoon, and they'll be chuckling all the way home.

So just as long as you don't seriously expect to get your money back, you'll be fine. When you paid your fee, you were paying for access to read the paper. As long as that access was provided, then the publisher has met their side of the bargain. Peer review is not a guarantee of correctness. It's a first-level junk filter, nothing more.

And on top of you getting what you've paid for, you've got the additional bonus that you've now got a new paper that you can write, that's practically already written itself; the paper where you take apart your bought paper's argument. Magnanimously, the publisher won't require you to pay extra for this bonus - you got it thrown in for free.

  • 16
    I'm not sure what you are saying is legitimate, either morally or legally. If the publishing company knows the paper is bogus, either through their own review or from having been informed by previous buyers' complaints, they are committing fraud if they keep selling access to it. – Kurt Tappe Nov 10 '15 at 20:38
  • 40
    Magnanimously, the publisher won't require you to pay extra for this bonus - you got it thrown in for free. Unless, of course, there's a fee for publishing the paper. Caveat scriptor. – tonysdg Nov 10 '15 at 20:48
  • 11
    "When you paid your fee, you were paying for access to read the paper. As long as that access was provided, then the publisher has met their side of the bargain." That's a very simplistic view that ignores whatever consumer protection legislation may be in force in the asker's country. For example, if the downloaded paper turned out to be literal gibberish, there'd be a very good claim for a refund. – David Richerby Nov 11 '15 at 0:31
  • 11
    I really don't think the tone of this post is appropriate for a 'helpful' post – Clinton J Nov 11 '15 at 1:31
  • 7
    @Raphael given that over 99% of writing is junk, then publishers are incredibly valuable. If you doubt it, go look at vixra. – EnergyNumbers Nov 11 '15 at 9:13
49

You can ask for anything you want, but you will not get a refund. The terms and condition of the site where you purchased it most likely clearly stated that it wasn't an option.

One example from Taylor & Francis:

The content in this site is provided "as is" and without warranties of any kind either express or implied.

Taylor & Francis Group Ltd do not warrant or make any representations regarding the use or the results of the use of the content in this site in terms of their correctness, accuracy, reliability, or otherwise.

And another piece of sound advice:

If you do not agree to these terms, please do not use this site.

More generally, the money you pay for the article is strictly for its publishing, the actual research that resulted in a "major flaw" was paid via other channels, on which it's very unlikely that you'll have any direct influence. The people making the original claim about the content of an article, and taking responsibility for it, are the authors not the publisher to which you paid the fee.

If you witness that a given journal has consistently low acceptance standards, make sure to notify your institution's library, they might consider resigning subscription if they gather enough similar complaints.

Sadly, for the occasional 20 bucks you consider wasted for that article (I'm sure this is purely fictional, there are many ways of getting subscription journal's content without paying for it) there are 10 unscrupulous scholars, somewhere who use 3000$ of your tax money to publish complete rubbish in an open access journal. And here the perspective of a refund is nonexistent.

  • 33
    Many organizations claim that they're providing goods or services with no warranty; this is often at odds with consumer protection legislation. The simple fact that they claim to offer no refunds doesn't mean that's legally viable. – David Richerby Nov 11 '15 at 0:28
  • 2
    @DavidRicherby Makes me wonder if their TOS was peer reviewed. ;-) – BrainSlugs83 Nov 11 '15 at 0:51
  • 4
    @DavidRicherby : Consumer protection law does not protect academia. The exact boundaries of consumer law can't be explained in this comment, but in general the law is restricted to natural persons. Most researchers don't pay for the access themselves, and for that reason alone can't invoke consumer law. – MSalters Nov 11 '15 at 13:30
  • 10
    @MSalters The implication of the question here seems to be that the article was bought by a natural person, however. No point in asking for a refund if you weren't the one paying for the article in the first place, and in fact doing so would probably be fraud. – JAB Nov 11 '15 at 15:58
  • 1
    @MSalters The question says "I bought". But I agree that, if that's a short-hand for "I got my employer to buy on my behalf", then it's a whole 'nother ball game. – David Richerby Nov 11 '15 at 19:53
17

The publisher does not guarantee that the article has no major flaw. Indeed, for all they know, the reason why you requested access to the article in the first place was to refute it. Or to check other people's criticism of it.

Also, consider how many articles there are that are wrong yet of great historical interest. One example that pops into mind is the papers Einstein published before November 1915, containing his "work in progress" on general relativity, including some blatantly flawed thoughts.

So no, I do not believe you are entitled to a refund. You certainly don't have a legal basis, but I don't believe you have a moral basis either.

I can, however, imagine a scenario in which you might be legally entitled to a refund: if the article in question was based on fraudulent research, and the publisher was complicit in the fraud (e.g., the paper remains available for a fee even after it has been demonstrated unambiguously that it represents fraudulent research). Respectable publishers retract such papers. Other publishers... well, good luck with them.

10

There is a case where I think you might have a very strong moral claim even if not a legal one: if the paper is retracted, there is no question that you ought to be able to obtain a refund.

Addendum One argument contrariwise: The last science needs is any further disincentive for publishers to retract papers. Maybe better for the enterprise as a whole to have a few readers get cheated than to have fraudulent and otherwise untrustworthy papers remain in the literature.

  • 2
    I didn't downvote, but this seems overly optimistic. Other comments and answers about "no implied warranty" I think are more likely the way things would play out. – paul garrett Nov 10 '15 at 19:38
  • 7
    Hence the qualification. It's not overly optimistic to say that you have a moral right. It's overly optimistic to think that the publisher would respect it. – Corvus Nov 10 '15 at 19:50
  • 1
    How about false advertising: The abstract claims a demonstration of X, where no such demonstration is available. – Joshua Nov 10 '15 at 19:51
  • 2
    Did "The Lancet" refund the buyers of that autism article? Because the damages are still piling up to this day. Measels, anyone? (cmaj.ca/content/182/4/E199.short) – Mindwin Nov 10 '15 at 20:12
  • 2
    @paulgarrett If I buy a car and it gets recalled due to major flaws, I sure as hell get a refund. Why would the rules be different here? – Raphael Nov 11 '15 at 8:58
2

There's only a few narrow reasons you might demand a refund in this case: first, if the download/manuscript was somehow damaged or malformed, e.g. pages missing, or somehow "broken"; secondly, if the precis you used to make the purchase decision described something fundamentally different than what the paper delivered; third, if there was something fraudulent about the paper.

Being "incorrect" or "false" is different than being "fraudulent."

2

To be successful in a request for a refund, either the publisher would have to be remarkably generous, or they would need to conclude that it is in their best interest. I'm skeptical that appeal to threatened "public hue and cry" would persuade them, since academic publishers are generally immune to negative publicity. A potentially more powerful motivating force would be legal pressure, for which I see two bases. One would be fraud, where the publisher knowingly represented falsehoods as truth. It would be challenging to establish fraud. The second is via warranty of merchantability (in the US enshrined in law via the Uniform Commercial Code article 2). In some cases, e.g. Taylor & Francis (following the lead of every known software producer), publications are offered as-is, in which case you have no option. Any product without an as-is disclaimer carries a warranty, to the effect that if the seller knows (or should know) that the item is used for a particular purpose, then the item is fit for that purpose. This is why one can sue a company for negligence, if they sell something as fit for a purpose when it is not.

In order to make any traction with a threat for violating the implied warranty of merchantability, you would have almost certainly have to enlist the aid of lawyers willing to help you pursue the matter. The two main things that you would have to objectively establish is that the article has a known purpose, and that the article actually is not fit for that purpose. I don't believe that you would have to establish that the publisher was aware of the defect (I'd like to be more assertive about that, but that's what lawyers do).

If you just email them asking for a refund, they will probably say that they don't make any guarantees. However, if your attorney uses suitable language, they would probably reply that they have a stated as-is policy (you're out of luck), or, that there is no way they could know of the mentioned purpose, or that the article is in fact fit for that purpose. Since "merchantability" isn't defined under the law, courts would generally compare the item in question against comparable products. The reason is that no product can be absolutely flawless, and a claimed based on merchantability would have to show that the product was egregiously defective, not just less than satisfactory.

That all said, you did not actually purchase "the article", you purchased a license to copy the article in a particular manner, for which reason it is not clear that UCC article 2 is applicable.

1

If you are just looking to get your money back, then I am afraid it is not worth an effort; you probably will spend more on the telephone calls than they charged you for the article.

However, it could be nice to set a precedent like this: to request a refund and eventually to sue a lazy publisher, who do not bother to introduce a proper level of scrutiny in their peer review process, and instead charge the authors to publish some bogus papers and then charge the readers to access them. I have no idea whether or not such a case can win (and I guess it depends on jurisdictions). The question just adds to the bigger question of very complicated relations between academic publishers and academia.

protected by eykanal Nov 11 '15 at 14:16

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.