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A Shocking Number of Science Papers Are Blocked by Paywalls, And That's a Big Problem

The price for scientific curiosity is steep.

16 NOV 2017

"Science is a beautiful gift to humanity; we should not distort it."

... or put a paywall in front of it.

Okay, that's not exactly how the quote ends. But if the famous scientist A. P. J. Abdul Kalam were alive today, perhaps he wouldn't mind the amendment. Especially if he were told that 65 of the top 100 most-cited scientific papers are currently behind a paywall.


That's right, the most important scientific research of our time is inaccessible to the majority of the world.

The overall message here isn't anything new. For years, scientific journals have been criticized for their high prices, and have been accused of stifling scientific curiosity. But now, a team of researchers have crunched the numbers and revealed just how prohibitive these prices can be.

When the researchers examined the 100 most-cited scientific papers of all time, they found four terrifying facts:

1. The weighted average of all the paywalls is: $32.33.


2. Although 65 percent of the most cited papers are paywalled, only 61 percent of those paper's citations are from paywalled journals. Therefore, the open access articles in this list are, on average, cited more than paywalled ones.

3. Among the top 100 papers, the researchers found 1,088,779 citations of open access articles. These articles are free, but if the price for each was set at $32.33, it would cost $5,199,108.44 to read them all. To put that in perspective, that's enough to buy everyone in New York City a Starbucks tall coffee and a chocolate chip cookie.

4. In comparison, the total amount for the paywalled articles is $54,722,252.80, which is enough to buy everyone in New York City a footlong from Subway.

Apparently, scientific knowledge is expensive.

These new findings arrive at a particularly important time. Just last week, the American Chemical Society (ACS) won their lawsuit against the pirate website, Sci-Hub. The website, which hosts more than 64 million papers, was created in 2011 by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan to "provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers." Ever since, it has been embroiled in multiple copyright lawsuits, and in 2015, Elbakyan was ordered to shut it down completely.


Nevertheless, the website persists, and has been heralded the "Robin Hood of scientific research" and the "Pirate Bay of science."

"Payment of $32 is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them," Elbakyan told Torrent Freak in 2015.

"Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that's absolutely legal."

The cause may be noble, but according to a judge from the Eastern District Court of Virginia, it is also illicit. Last week, the US judge issued an order for the website to close. He fined Elbakyan $4.8 million.

Not everyone is happy with the decision. For months now, critics have been writing articles about why the lawsuit against Sci-Hub is hypocritical at best. Defenders of Sci-Hub argue that shutting down the website goes against the very purpose of Copyright law. An article from Techdirt points to the US Constitution as evidence.

According to Article 1 of the Constitution, Congress has the right "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." When the Constitution was written, science was a term used broadly to describe "learning" and "education." In fact, the Copyright Act of 1790 was even subtitled "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning."

Surely, the author argues, Sci-Hub's dissemination of scientific papers is not in violation of copyright because it is done in the pursuit of knowledge.

The Techdirt article also points out that scientific journals that implement paywalls do not pay the authors for their work. Even more ridiculous is the fact that many of these journals are funded by taxpayer dollars.

Despite the court ruling, it's unlikely that Elbakyan will give up anytime soon. She does not believe that what she is doing is illegal. Quite the contrary. She thinks it is the business models of scientific journals that are truly violating the law.

Elbakyan believes her defense is supported by article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states "everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

And - thanks to recent number crunching - it is obvious that not everyone in the world can afford to participate.