Arguments for Open Access and Paid Academic Journals

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The choice of paid or open access academic journals? This was written by the authors of the blog in this large review. In any country, politicians, activists, and various experts have always been arguing about access to information: who must have such a right, what kind of information must be accessible for certain groups of people, and whether it should be paid or free. The academic industry and many academic journals also face such a problem.
Those who support open access claim that any information created by government institutions or public schools is owned by the public because the public pays for such information with taxes.
On the other hand, there are publishing houses and business representatives who say that free access is dangerous for legitimate publishers. They say that free access to any information leads to the loss of jobs and worsening of the quality of articles.

Paid and Free Journals

Many researchers and academics keep arguing whether or not publishers should charge money for academic journals. The majority of scholars access articles online, using various databases. The growing prices for journals have a negative impact on subscriptions.
There is no surprise that these prices grow, however, there are private and federal grants that usually help with funding. Many academic organizations believe that scientific articles must be free, as these are taxpayers who finance this kind of work. According to the Professional Scholarly Publishing Bulletin, the increase in prices doesn’t explain the whole situation, as libraries get more money than they actually spend.
It’s almost impossible to accurately calculate the increase in prices based solely on print subscriptions. Such an approach doesn’t explain how various libraries spend their money in the context of the increased value of both digital and printed materials.
On the other hand, it’s important to understand that while the actual research is funded partially by grants, they don’t pay for the publishing process. There are many additional costs associated with printing, reviewing, marketing, and other aspects of such projects.

The Economics of Academic Publishing

Although it’s hard to determine whether licensed and open source materials are profitable, as well as what approach is the best, there’s no doubt that both platforms are dependent on finances. Simply put, both sides get profit and suffer from each other at the same time.

How Academic Publications Are Funded

Both licensed and open source journals receive money from different sources. Licensed publications are focused on getting profit from charging membership fees, however, there are also other ways to benefit.
Such organizations receive a lot of money from government grants and fees that come from universities, libraries, independent researchers, and research organizations.
Usually, research grants go right to the author or a team that conducted the research. Thus, direct grants for publications are rare. A part of grants is usually used to pay fees associated with publishing.
Open source journals usually rely on big grants, such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These organizations help only databases with a good reputation that are focused on education or sciences.

The Economics of Paid Journals

Licensed journals have the most noticeable impact in the context of finances. Many big publishers purchased well-known academic journals during the 60s and 70s. It was a reason why pay rates and subscriptions increased.

Database Subscriptions and Fees

When publications became available online, prices for databases and academic journals started to increase by an average of 7% every year.
On the other hand, it’s still unclear how much published researches cost. According to Mark J. McCabe, peer reviews are one of the most important challenges in this industry, and reviews are available for free. Nevertheless, publishers charge millions of dollars every year so that scientists can read the final version of a paper.
According to the data of the University of California, such a tendency doesn’t allow the university to maintain its database for medical sciences students.
The growth of the prices for academic publications is observed not only in the U.S but in other countries as well. The USA has had the fifth biggest prices for journals in the world in 2017. The average price of $1,300 is predicted to grow by 6% this year.

The Serial Crisis

The average price for subscriptions to licensed journals increased by 2% every year, until 1986. Many universities complained about such a situation, as they were forced to increase tuition so that their students could afford to work with such sources.
As a result, the number of subscriptions dropped by 10%, and costs associated with publishing increased by 8%. MLA reported that the budgets of libraries and universities started decreasing as the internet gained popularity.

The Best Academic Databases

Academic journals are important for students, teachers, and researchers because they need to write numerous research papers, reviews, and other assignments. Most often, they look for the necessary information in online academic journals, using such sources as:

  • Libraries
  • Google Scholar and other APIs (Application Programming Interfaces)
  • Academic databases, like JSTOR or ProQuest.

Usually, students get an opportunity to use such sources for free, as universities and research companies pay for databases.

Paid Databases

Most often, researchers and students need to pay to access academic articles. They also use various online databases to read scholarly journals. Some databases contain thousands of journals from different academic fields. For example, there are such databases as LexisNexis, ProQuest, ebscoHOST, and JSTOR.
Most universities pay on average $300,000 for databases every year. However, there are also universities that spend up to $2 million annually.

    JSTOR appeared as a non-profit project aimed to provide researchers and students with scientific articles for free. It still has many free options, such as ebooks, journals, and primary resources. This database provides students with all the necessary materials for researchers on any topic.
    JSTOR is one of the smallest databases available online, and it’s also cheaper than many other databases. Most users pay about $19.50 a month, which guarantees unlimited access. You can also read three articles every two weeks for free.
  • ebscoHOSTThis is one of the most popular databases. It has many customized tools so that it can be used by corporations, schools, or libraries. On the other hand, there are no individual plans and the subscription costs $10,000 to $300,000.
    This company was founded in 1944 and is one of the biggest private corporations owned by a family in America. According to their website, ebscoHOST includes 600,000 ebooks in 375 different databases. There are books from 150 various academic disciplines.
  • ProQuest
    Just like many other databases, this one works with various organizations to collect their data. This database is cheaper than other services described in this article. The usage for individual purposes costs about $1 for one record, which is even cheaper than a newspaper subscription for one week. The price is a big advantage of this database, but it has fewer publications and disciplines available.
    There are more than 19,000 reviewed scholarly sources in ProQuest. Most of the information comes from periodicals. This service also has a number of options for universities and colleges. Every year, it archives thousands of dissertations and term papers.
  • LexisNexis
    This database is focused on law, business and legal statutes. It owns such services as and Martindale-Hubbell, which are very popular among attorneys in the U.S. Most often, it is used by legal experts. Each online record costs from $0 to $400. Most of the resources available in this database can be also accessed for free at Cornell University.
    This company gets its profits mostly from various colleges, law firms, government agencies, universities, and libraries. The annual membership costs $40,000 to $1 million.
  • Elsevier
    This service includes many free and open source materials. The price for paid materials is about $1,000-$5,000. Thanks to this service, authors can pay for their readers’ access, allowing them to read certain articles for free. However, this option is not cheap and strictly regulated by the company.

Free Databases

Free databases and open source databases are often more convenient than the paid ones. Researchers get an advantage of using data from less known publications and works of authors with unique opinions. Google Scholar, DOAJ, and JURN are the most common open source databases.
We have to notice that free access and open source does not necessarily imply no fees. There are organizations that need to maintain these databases, so they need money to cover their operational costs. These organizations may also review certain materials or make updates.
All free search tools and databases earn money by selling advertisements, accepting donations, or including manuscript fees. Some of them also offer the author-pay option.
Obviously, the author-pay approach is very controversial. Some journals publish materials only after an author pays for the submission. These costs cover editing and peer reviews, but author-pay options usually don’t cover costs associated with marketing.

  • JURN
    This website is rather a sort of search tool, as it doesn’t store sources. This service indexes materials published on other websites. The effective search algorithm is based on using Google Search API. This database is popular in arts, science, and the humanities. Its search algorithms are constantly getting improved, which causes a positive effect on its reputation.
    JURN is different from many similar databases, as it doesn’t sell ads and doesn’t require a paid membership. JURN exists only because it accepts donations and relies on sponsorship.
  • Google ScholarIt’s one of the most popular search tools for academic papers, and it also can be called the most advanced one. The API-based search engine offers more interesting options than other free or paid databases. Here, students can search for academic databases, books, libraries, and websites. Like JURN, Google Scholar doesn’t store its own content, so users may need to pay certain fees required by the original source.
    This research tool is a favorite search engine for many students because it uses Google’s API. Thus, this system is simpler than LexisNexis or ebscoHOST, but it’s also more effective, as it provides results of the same quality, with all the necessary details.
  • eMedicineHealth
    There are not so many databases used in medical sciences, because medical projects are often too long and imply a lot of additional costs. eMedicineHealth is a good alternative, as most articles are edited by healthcare experts and doctors, being based on research of secondary sources.
    Most users are patients, however, independent researchers can find a lot of useful information about depression, diabetes, autism, and other conditions. The main advantage of this company is its strict editorial rules. All materials are checked by medical experts.
  • Directory of Open Access JournalsDOAJ is a place where students can find open source journals and articles on various subjects. It has its community that provides links to the potential content. These links are reviewed by moderators of the repository and approved.
    The business model of this company relies on both manuscript fees and donations. It offers membership services with paid subscriptions, author submittals, and open source databases.

Arguments for Free Academic Journals

Supporters of the open source approach claim that academic sources must be free and accessible to everyone. Having a completely transparent access to scholarly sources, everyone can benefit from the existing results of research and make his or her own contribution. Free academic sources also allow researchers to easily collaborate with each other.

Marketplace of Ideas

There is a theory popular among proponents of the open source approach, which is called the open marketplace of ideas. It is based on the freedom of speech, expression, and collaboration mentioned in the Bill of Rights. This theory was described by John Milton in his book Areopagitica. Milton said that any ideas must be free of charge and accessible for free.
According to Milton, licensing is unconstitutional because it forces people to pay for the information and is a kind of censorship. Milton’s philosophy considers knowledge as a power that has a potential for all the Americans. All the citizens have a right to make their decisions based on the accurate information. This perspective has been also supported by courts. Open ideas were considered crucial for democracy and representing some of the fundamental rights.
The movement for open education is fighting for free access to scholarly journals and researches, as this approach is beneficial for students who get an opportunity to master many critical skills, taking into account ideas of experts in a certain academic field.
Kitware Inc develops open source programs and widely supports free information. Marcus Hanwell, an expert from Kitware Inc told that journal articles must be free because journals rely on money they receive from the government. He also underlined that the privatization of free sources slows down the scientific progress.
These ideas were supported by decisions the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in France and the United States Supreme Court. SCOTUS mentioned the marketplace of ideas in United States v. Rumely and added it as the main public policy for freedom of expression and freedom of speech in Brandenburg v. Ohio.

Taxpayers Pay for the Research

Supporters of free academic journals also have another strong argument: most researches are financed by taxpayers. The results of researches are usually published in academic journals, and not all of them are public, as the White House directive requires. Results of research can be accessed only after a user buys a paid subscription.
According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, about 2% of the national budget is used in medical researches and scientific programs. Research foundations and various universities receive up to $135 billion every year.
These studies are possible due to the taxpayers, but the public needs to pay publishers for an opportunity to use the results of these studies. This was a reason why President Obama included free access to research programs in his educational program.
John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, instructed agencies with the biggest research budgets to make results of researches funded by the government available for free. They also need to do it within one year since a research was published.
The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2017, sponsored by senators John Cornyn and Ron Wyden, was created to ensure fair and free use of studies in technology and science.

Colleges Get More Information

Many colleges are not satisfied with the prices for academic journals or subscriptions to databases. Even such a prestigious university as Harvard complains about this issue. Its library urged the school’s faculty to refrain from using academic journals because the university cannot afford it anymore.
According to Harvard representatives, the university spends about $3.5 million on journals every year, which is 10% of the whole budget of the library. Now Harvard is looking for open source solutions that will replace their traditional system.
Many other colleges, like the University of Alabama, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the State University of New York at Potsdam have also decreased their database collections.

Arguments Against Free Academic Journals

There are also people who don’t support free access to information and claim that independence is of key importance for academic journals. They talk about the economic competition and protection of the integrity of studies. Such companies also have a constitutional right to charge money for using their information. In turn, such profits are aimed towards the improvement of the further research.

The Right to Charge for Access and Capitalism

The U.S. is the country with a capitalist economy. Thus, any citizen has a right to own some company and make profits in the global market. Everyone has a constitutional right to charge for any products or services.
In turn, the government must ensure that commerce is fair and companies treat their clients properly. Federal agencies cannot mistreat legal business. Both company executives and legislatures agree that academic journals are a sort of capitalist business.

Publication Costs

When academic journals charge for access, it’s not always profit-making. There are many costs that publishers need to compensate by offering paid membership and premium access. Databases and publishers have to deal with operating сosts. For example, they pay for typesetting, editing, and proofreading, as well as for other features of article processing. In addition, they spend some money on promotion, hosting, and services crucial for research itself. The production of an average academic research article is about $3,500 to $4,000, depending on a publisher.
The majority of academic journals doesn’t recoup more than 30% of their operating costs. They receive the biggest profits from various grants.

The Collapse of the Peer Review Process

Any academic journal to a large extent depends on peer reviews. This approach ensures the integrity of the research process and the accuracy of the results. Without this process, serious academic journals would be no different from Wikipedia.
Wikipedia itself is a sort of problem for the academic world, as the decreasing number of peer-reviewed journals and the growing popularity of open source materials pushes students to use Wikipedia more often for their academic needs.
According to the data of the University of Washington, about 80% of students have used Wikipedia for academic purposes in 2010. There is no reason why this number couldn’t grow up to 100% by 2018.
Although professional scientists don’t use this website in their practice, the number of Wikipedia users continues to grow. Students cite Wikipedia in their academic works, which is a big problem. Articles on this website are written by people who don’t have the necessary qualification and its information is not reviewed for accuracy. Even Jimmy Wales, the founder of this source, discourages students from citing Wikipedia in their academic papers.
Supporters of paid academic journals claim that the paid model provides students with more accurate data and allows them to use Wikipedia less often.

Peer Reviewing in Open Source and Licensed Journals

The peer-reviewing process is not cheap. It costs about $1,850, which is 40% of the budget for an academic article. Open source journals sometimes invest in peer reviews, but usually, they rely on reviews from volunteers. In the case of paid journals, they make sure that articles are reviewed by top experts.
Such a task is impossible for open source databases and journals because they cannot afford it. In 2009, a fake manuscript generated by computer was submitted to the Open Information Science Journal using the author-pay model. More than a half of journals that used this platform published this automatically generated article.
The same happened in 2013 when the Science magazine intentionally published inaccurate data. Such well-known databases as the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, Sage Publications, and Elsevier had to apologize.
Despite such incidents, the popularity of open source journals and databases continues to grow, and citations from open source journals become more and more common, which can mean the growing amount of misinformation.

Paying Tackles Plagiarism

Free and open source databases stimulate plagiarism. The internet allows people to intentionally or accidentally plagiarize somebody else’s works and to use intellectual property without permission. Most open source databases use computer algorithms to get materials and usually don’t check them for plagiarism.
Paid journals often become victims of the internet, as open source platforms publish their articles. Even well-known open source proponents sometimes get caught on stealing licensed content. For example, Alexandra Elbakyan, who created Sci-Hub, used fake accounts to illegally share articles from licensed journals. The website was shut down after Elbakyan was sued by the American Chemical Society and Elsevier. Another activist, Aaron Swartz, illegally used materials from JSTOR and committed suicide before the hearing started.
After these two incidents, many paid journals blocked Google and other search engines from accessing their articles via robots.txt and login credentials. In turn, such a decision allowed people to post the stolen content on Google.


It’s hard to find the only answer to the question, whether should academic journals be free or paid. Some people argue for open source, others argue against, but there’s also a bigger picture that remains unnoticed by many activists.
The truth is that both approaches can be beneficial. Open source platforms are popular because licensed journals maintain high prices. Students can’t afford these prices so they start using free databases. Membership fees directly impact the growing popularity of open source.
On the other hand, paid publications benefit from open source because the more academics start using free platforms, the more people learn about the original source, which is great for marketing. Many readers will always look for relevant materials in references and check citations.

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