Is there any research/study/survey/... that tried to estimate how much it would cost to remove paper pay-walls so that all existing research papers are made publicly available free of charge?

E.g. France paid Elsevier 172 million EUR (mirror) so that 476 universities and medical center can have legal access to 2000 journals for five years. I wonder how much it would cost to buy the access to all papers so that anyone can access then.

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    made publicly available Please clarify who is the public? Your own country? Europe? U.S.? Developing countries? Undeveloped countries? How about Regions? (Hong Kong is not a country, it's a special region) The whole world? Vote to close as unclear.
    – Nobody
    Oct 2, 2016 at 3:09
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    @scaaahu public = all citizens, either in a given country or all countries. Oct 2, 2016 at 4:12
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    Have you looked into SCOAP3? That covered (most of) one field but it should be possible to extrapolate Oct 2, 2016 at 8:32
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    @Andrew Thanks, this is the kind of initiatives I was looking for. However, from my vague understanding of What is SCOAP3?, SCOAP3 only focuses on paying publication fees when researchers submit new papers? i.e., it doesn't try to buy the right to make publicly available papers are paywalled? Oct 2, 2016 at 18:39
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    It's clearly not your question, but I cannot help underlining that France paid once for the researchers to write the papers, and a second time to buy their papers from a private company...
    – anderstood
    Oct 3, 2016 at 18:09

4 Answers 4


Zero. The government of the nation you live in can pass a bill that mandates that all (existing and future) published research papers are made publicly available and redistributable.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Note that comments can only be migrated once; further comments cannot be moved to chat and may be deleted.
    – eykanal
    Oct 5, 2016 at 3:53
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    And how much would it cost to convince the government of my country to pass such a bill?
    – JeffE
    May 22, 2017 at 4:12
  • @JeffE Based on the current decision making: maybe you could win it over with a well-placed tweet.
    – skymningen
    May 22, 2017 at 11:14

It's an interesting thought. Presumably, if you looked at the market capitalisation of some of the major commercial journal publishers, you could get a sense of how much it would cost to purchase both ownership of the intellectual property in such articles, journals, infrastructure and many other things.

I did a quick google and it suggested that the market capitalisation of Elsevier (for example http://www.bloomberg.com/quote/REL:LN) was 35 billion British Pounds (although I'm no expert in reading this stuff, and there seems like there is a lot of aggregation of companies into larger structures). My main point is that there is presumably a market value associated with the vast majority of the commercial publishing literature. It would be interesting to get an estimate of what this is (e.g., is it a half trillion US dollars or perhaps its much less, I'm not sure). The main point is that it would be theoretically possible for governments to buy such companies or alternatively acquire the rights at commercial rates. It would however be very expensive.

Alternatively, governments could change intellectual property law in relation to scientific journals or some category of material. There are a variety of ways that this could be done. A simple option would just be to mandate that articles in scientific journals need to be made accessible on a suitable repository (e.g., like pubmed) perhaps after some embargo period.

In general, a lot of this raises a number of broader legal issues. For example, it may be considered poor legal precedent to change the law after the fact. I.e., journals invested in publications on the assumption that their intellectual property would be protected and these rights are then unilaterally taken away by government. In some legal contexts, this may give rise to the publishers having rights for financial compensation.

The alternative strategy is to focus more on ways going forward that the published literature can be more accessible to the general public. For example, this can be seen in various conditions placed on grants that the publications need to be open.


I think that your example does not reflect the question. I didn't read the entire contract but it seems to me that France has just paid in advance the publisher's fees for five years for all the universities.

Probably they got a large discount, with respect to what they would have had to pay without such a large contract, but the order of magnitude is roughly the same.

For instance, in Italy all the university libraries are public, which means that any citizen can enter and read books and journals. Sometimes ago, I looked at the annual budgets of a few university libraries, and depending on the size of the university they ranged from a few hundred thousand euros to several million euros. Unfortunately there was no information on the expense breakdown between journals, books and databases, but I think it's reasonable to consider around 50 k€ for a major, possibly greedy, publisher (years ago I heard that IEEE journals where around 30 k€).

Hence, if you consider 50 k€ for roughly 500 universities and centers for five years you obtain 125 M€, which is of the order of magnitude of what France has paid.

Therefore, according to your example,

How much would it cost to remove pay-walls?

It costs as much as the total fees.

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    In other words, if you want to pay Elsevier a one-time subscription rather than many smaller ones, they are going to ask you for the same amount of money that they make now. Their business expenses are not going to change, so they need the same amount of money to keep their business going as it runs now. Oct 1, 2016 at 20:48
  • 50 k€ for how many journals? I agree that the example is a limited version of the question, which I tried to specify by mentioning "France paid Elsevier 172 million EUR so that 476 universities and medical center can have legal access to 2000 journals for five years." Oct 2, 2016 at 18:26
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    @FranckDernoncourt Usually publishers sell the whole package of their published journals: it's a way to sell also the less read ones. Oct 2, 2016 at 18:28
  • @MassimoOrtolano Thanks, so in the example it means a University has to pay 50 k€ to obtain access to 2000 journals for one year? Oct 2, 2016 at 18:31
  • @FranckDernoncourt Yes, roughly. As you can see from the obtained total, I might have a bit underestimated that amount. Oct 2, 2016 at 18:32

Is there any research/study/survey/... that tried to estimate how much it would cost to remove paper pay-walls so that all existing research papers are made publicly available free of charge?

I am not aware of any such study. The cost however, could be pretty minimal if the governments of a couple of key countries (e.g., US, UK, Germany, etc) decided to make it happen. If laws were passed to outlaw restrictive licenses on research publications, this would effectively remove pay walls.

A few years back, the NIH mandated that all publications resulting from NIH funded work be made freely available after an embargo period. While the NIH is still willing to provide funding for publication and open access fees, if they stopped, people would be forced to publish in free (both as in beer and as in freedom) places. Similarly, there is discussion that in the future in the UK the REF will only count open access publications. Again the research councils provide funding for publication and open access fees, but if they stopped, people would publish in free places.

  • Note that the government of the UK seems to think that "gold" OA is a bad idea after all. nature.com/news/…
    – Cape Code
    Oct 3, 2016 at 16:53

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