Can someone give me a legitimate, convincing argument as to why scientific papers should be locked behind subscriptions and paywalls? That unless you happen to be on a campus, you can't get view a manuscript without paying an often extortionate amount?

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    There is a similar post on Quora. I haven't really found anything concrete in there, but I suppose you might want to read it.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 5:20
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    @ÉbeIsaac The closest question I remember and I found is How much would it cost to remove pay-walls?.
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 5:29
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    You may be interested in Mark Burgess's blog post Why I stopped caring about peer review, and learned to love the work, which is very relevant. (Mark Burgess is the inventor of Promise Theory and the creator of CFEngine.) An excerpt: "Science rarely waits for publications to appear anymore. The process is so painfully slow that when a publication appears, either everyone has already read it, or no one is going to. It takes months or years for a paper to reach print, and who can afford academic journals anyway?"
    – Wildcard
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 14:39
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    Because most research is carried out in universities (who often have a group license for most journals of note) or in industry (where the cost of accessing the latest science is trivial compared to the amounts being spent on salaries, expenses, equipment, etc).
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 21:22
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    I wonder if you couldn't make the title a little more neutral. When I need a graphic card for my research, I say "I found it for 599$ online" not "It's locked behind a paywall".
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 16:05

8 Answers 8


Once upon a time, before the internet existed, the only way to distribute scientific content to a worldwide audience was through print. There are obvious costs related to printed publications such as paper, ink, printing, distribution, etc. Commercial publishing houses were established, which took care of this task, as well as the editing, the type-setting, organizing the review process (mind that the reviewers are typically not paid, but they still have to be found, contacted, etc, and all of that also costs money in a pre-internet era).

Many of these commercial scientific journals gained a certain reputation over time, and it became attractive for scientists to try to publish in the highest valued journals. For the publishers it was (and is) attractive to maintain the journal's reputation (e.g. expressed in its impact factor, etc), in order to attract an abundance of high quality manuscripts, select the best ones, and keep a large audience.

This was (and to a large extent still is) the status quo when the internet arose. This is also basically the answer to your question.

Now with the internet, it is perfectly possible to reach a large worldwide audience without the costs of printed journals (e.g. ArXiv). Also, peer review could be organized in an alternative manner. However, the commercial publishers have a lot of interest in keeping the old business model alive, as it is the source of their revenue.

So why are things largely as they were 50 years ago? There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, there is the absence of a platform that fully replaces the ring of scientific journals, including a reliable peer review process (or accepted alternative). Furthermore, people tend to do what they are used to doing in the past, and senior researchers (the ones who take the decisions) are used to publish in the traditional venues, and teach the juniors to do the same. Lastly, many researchers are (at least partially) evaluated with respect to the reputation of the venues they publish in, which keeps the old and established journals alive.

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    peer-review.stackexchange.com :)
    – Steve
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 21:53
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    Slightly relevant (though obviously as I was not alive before the internet, I have to take everyone's word for it): xkcd.com/1348
    – tonysdg
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 5:42
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    So in short: a mixture of laziness, inertness, missing recognition, high upfront investments and a lack of competition. I would maybe add that researchers do not waste their own money but that of their funding agency - pressure to change actions may be less in that case. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 13:33
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    There is also a lock-in effect, where "high-impact journal publication" is the necessary standard to obtain research funding -- so no matter how you may feel about the morality of this business model, you are forced to shovel more money toward publishers to keep your own career alive. It's hard to see how this cycle can be broken. Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 17:16
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    @andybuckley: Which is especially stupid given that real-world value depends in large part on availability, meaning that, all else being equal, an open-access journal will inherently be more impactful than one that charges for articles, simply because more-readily-accessible articles are more likely to actually be read and downloaded and built upon and otherwise used. (Thank goodness for Sci-Hub!)
    – Vikki
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 4:58

The answer by Danny Ruijters already says a lot and mine will have some intersection with his or hers, but there is at least one forgotten crucial element. For simplicity I will consider mainly the classical, still dominant mode of publication, by subscription.

[Added in edit] Short summary:

  1. publishers charge for access because that is how they make money,
  2. they are able to do that because authors sign copyright agreement giving them exclusive rights to do so, see e.g. Danny Ruijters' answer which explains why authors need to publish in specific journals,
  3. these specific, prestigious journals won't leave publishers asking such fees because of inertia, which is in great part explained by the fact that publishers own the titles.

From the print era to the Internet era, scientific publishers shifted from a business whose main job was to distribute scientific works (which entailed composing, printing, shipping) to businesses whose main job is to prevent those who do not subscribe to read the articles they processed. When I say "main job", I don't say "only job", and I don't necessarily say its what they spend the most time at. I mean that it is the central part of their business model, in the sense that every other part could be made more or less poorly, but that part must be done right if they want to obtain any money.

Certainly, a job done warrants a payment, and publisher do many jobs we need (and many we don't, but that is not the point here). But as has been mentioned, payment could be organized differently, directly by the government for examples. After all, We need road builders to be paid, and yet we don't put tolls on every road, do we?

So, needing of payment cannot be the one answer to the question. Inertia, as mentioned by Danny Ruijters, is a large component of the answer. But one element that explains the level of this inertia is the following:

Most publishers own the copyright on the articles they processed, and possess the titles of the journals they run.

The first item means that a given article cannot be distributed by anyone else without explicit agreement from the publisher, and the second item means that even the editorial board of a journal cannot decide to move the journal to another publisher for any reason.

The few defections that occurred implied founding a new journal and hoping to make clear that the editorial board carried his editorial policy and prestige to the new journal. A recent example is given by Glossa, which was founded by the former editorial board of Lingua after they resigned (see e.g. here and there), after Elsevier refused to run Lingua according to the principles of "fair OA".

There are (and have been) many attempts at moving things toward open access, in various guises and business models, and the story is not over. But inertia is tremendous.

  • What would a direct payment by governments (which ones?) solve in your opinion?
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 20:21
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    -1 The question is "Why do journals charge for access?" and I don't see how this answers that at all. Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 12:40
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    @CapeCode: it would enable Open Access to all articles from publicly funded research to the whole world (and the government or public body that think worth to invest in research would be the ones who should be willing to also invest in disseminating it). It is important that the funding is to a journal, not to an author (no big deal of APC!) so that submissions and acceptance decisions can still be made on a scientific basis without payment interfering. Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 12:43
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    @DavidRicherby: the "why do [traditional] journals charge for access" is answered in my second paragraph: it is how publishers make their money. The first part of the boldfaced sentence also explains who they can do such a thing: they own the full copyright of articles. Then the answer by Danny Ruijters already explained that the main reason why this old model is still dominating is inertia, partially explaining why this inertia. However this inertia is also explained by the point I mainly wanted to raise, possession of the titles. Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 12:59
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    @DavidRicherby check again. The question makes no mention of journals - the question is "why are articles not free?" - journals are only one possible method of publishing articles.
    – Jeff
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 23:36

Why are most scientific articles locked behind a paywall?

Scientific articles can be found behind a paywall, but they are not locked there.

First, a lot of preprints, technical reports, extended versions are already available. Instead of only searching via Google, you can check the author's page (often containing preprints, codes), and a lot of archives and similar services: arxiv, biorxiv, hal, researchgate, academia and many others. Some older papers are quite often made available freely.

Second: most authors nicely share their preprint, version, etc. Just ask them (email for instance).

Third: in dire situations, there exist less open and legal options. Check for instance: How does LibGen/SciHub affect researchers' research and publishing process?

Last: if one is not 100% online, one can go to libraries, and xerox papers in written journals.

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    It's a pain to have to ask authors to share their papers. It is even more time-consuming to go to libraries, and the latter need to be funded so that they can afford unlocking paywalled papers. Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 0:58
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    @FranckDernoncourt I mostly agree on the practical and ethical side. However, I have witnessed than asking papers to authors is not a real pain, and often the opportunity to promote scientific interactions Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 7:44
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    @FranckDernoncourt yeah, it's sooo annoying having to do things, I agree.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 8:39
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    @CapeCode Glad we agree. Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 15:33
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    From my non-academic perspective, I have absolutely no connections, no vested interest in the field, and no ability or desire to contribute back to the field itself. I just want to read the article. To ask a busy professional to take their time (even just the little bit of emailing a pdf) and give it to someone like me would be rude. I imagine that it wouldn't be as bad for other academics, since you are likely to use the information to benefit the field.
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 18:36

What @scaaahu said is essentially true unless a journal were to be set up with such a low budget that all of the publications would have to be like arXiv. Suppose you want your repository of scientific papers to have some authoritative gatekeeper to put a limit on crackpot and commercial dreck.

The way it is, is that most journals have unpaid academic associates that review the submissions, but there need to be an editor and staff to receive submissions and dispatch them to reviewers and make decisions about whether and where to publish each submission.

Each of our disciplines has professional societies that are recognized as authoritative and have a journal telling each other and the world what the state of their art currently is. I know my society (the Audio Engineering Society) is just now beginning to do some manner of fair use thing for convention preprints that are not yet Journal papers (and may never be deemed worthy of the Journal). And the Journal papers can be accessed by any of us with membership, but someone on the outside would have to pay something like $20 to get it. (don't like that? become a member.) But for convention papers that are not published (and are preliminary for the authors) they need the ability to disseminate their work, if it is not disseminated in the Journal, without running afoul of copyright law. So fair use is granted.

Usually, if you can contact an author, they are happy to send you a .pdf copy of their papers, whether or not any Journal claims to hold exclusive rights to the submitted and accepted paper.

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    Spot on, especially with the final paragraph - I am on ResearchGate and frequently get reprint requests, which I happily honour.
    – user65092
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 7:52
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    I don't think that the (scientific) editors that do the selection work are paid, either. Maybe the editors-in-chief. Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 8:59
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    @FedericoPoloni I don't know about other journals but for IEEE Transactions the Editors-in-Chief are volunteers.
    – LCW
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 12:20
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    I don't understand your third paragraph. You seem to be suggesting that the journal would retain copyright of even rejected submissions. That would be a very unusual situation: all of the journals I'm familiar with only require the transfer of copyright after they have agreed to publish the article (if they require transfer at all). Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 12:37
  • @Nullarbor FYI Should I send a “cease-and-desist” letter to ResearchGate? Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 1:02

Publishing is a service that comes with a cost. That was true before the internet, and it is still true today. You can fund this service in many different ways, one being to charge readers with either a subscription or a single article charge. Contrary to what is often said (on the internet), publishers only charge for the publishing process, not for the work that resulted in the content (research, writing, reviewing, etc.). Nothing prevents the authors from giving you the content for free if you ask politely.

This has the advantage of taking the burden of finding funds, and taking care of the practicalities of publishing away from researchers. In that way, they can use their time and resources for actual research.

Subscription also has the interesting effect of placing the monetary incentive on pleasing readers (the customers), thus encouraging quality and relevance curation. As opposed to, say, author-pay open access where authors are the ones whose needs are being catered for. The scientific community as a whole benefits much more from journals where the redundant or bad content is being rejected. Authors, on the other hand, just want their stuff published.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 19:30

Can someone give me a legitimate, convincing argument as to why scientific papers should be locked behind subscriptions and paywalls?

See Why do tenured professors still publish in pay-walled venues? (short summary: pay-walled venues tend to have more prestige, and many professors favor prestige over open access.)

Also related: If an author does not intend to make much revenue from a book, why not make it open-access?

Notice the amount of snarky comments these two questions have received, which tend to indicate how interested academics are in this topic.

That unless you happen to be on a campus, you can't get view a manuscript without paying an often extortionate amount?

I work in a university that pays millions of dollars every year for journal subscriptions, and yet I do not have access to many pay-walled research papers, which prevents me from doing research efficiently.

Some statistics: Percentage of total scholarly literature available in open access repositories by year of publication broken down by discipline

Other related question:

(Comment from David Richerby): This doesn't answer the question. Why do journals charge for access?

@DavidRicherby It does answer the question: I focused on researchers, not journals. If many researchers are okay to submit to journals that charge for access, then such journals would be crazy not to charge for access, regardless of their budget. If you want to focus on the rational behind journal subscription prices, it has already been asked: Why are journal subscriptions so expensive?


Additional info about the quality criterion for selecting a journal to publish in:

The universe of open journals is being polluted by the many vanity presses, to the point that the term "open journal" is starting to become disreputable. I get ads for open journals that promise to review a submission in 2 weeks!

Other factoids:

Some commercial publishers allow the authors to pay to make their papers open.

The US government is pressuring researchers to make their papers open, regardless of publishing venue.

  • Pretty much everyone in academia (and probably many outside) is getting spam from vanity presses on a regular basis. However, there are a number of open journals (some established, some fresh) that are just as well respected as classical paywalled publications, and noone reasonably experienced in academia would mistake them for vanity presses (the differences are usually obvious even to the outsider: e.g., vanity presses tend to advertise their impact factors and review timeframes in your face; they put their logo in places where logos don't belong; they use ... Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 23:02
  • ... markup systems inferior to LaTeX; they publish on a wild mix of subjects with only superficial interconnections). Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 23:04
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    This doesn't answer the question: why are journal articles behind paywalls? Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 12:44

Journals have an asset -- their reputation as repositories of high quality papers.

Academics are rewarded if their papers are viewed as high quality. Academics want to read high quality papers.

So Academics want access to Journals with a good reputation. Academics also want to publish their papers in Journals with a good reputation, so others will read it, and others give their paper the doubt as to its quality.

Journals exploit these two facts. They get Academics to give them high quality papers and assign copyright over to the Journal for no money at all.

They then sell the right to look at the Journal to other Academics for large amount of money.

They have an asset, and are self interested in exploiting it.

The next question is, where do the Academics get the money? Well, they get it from the university. Universities want high quality Academics because it makes them look better, and high quality Academics want Journal subscriptions.

Universities want to look better because it helps with fund raising. It both means some students will pay lots of money to go there (other students are accepted at lower rates based on "quality", which also helps reputation), and alumni are more willing to donate money and get some of that "reflected glory" from being a sponsor of their institution. High reputation institutions can also use their political capital to influence government funding or other rules that make it easier for them to operate.

Or, in short, most Journals operate in a way to draw money out of the "gift" economy of Academia, where Academics give their research to the commons and gather reputation back. Universities pay into this "gift" economy in order to capture the reputational value of their Academics and use it to gather funds from other sources.

The "vanity presses" do so in a way that actually doesn't help the Academic trying to succeed in their gift reputational game.

Capitalism encourages people to find monopolies and raise prices to capture the surplus economic value produced by a system. The exclusive right to the name of the Journal and its repository of past papers is a weak monopoly; the paywall is part of exploiting that monopoly to generate profits.

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