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October 25, 2017

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October 25, 2017

Should we boycott gated journals on social media? How about a pledge?

October 25, 2017
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OpenAccessWeek_logoIt’s International Open Access Week, so this seems a good time to post on something that’s been bugging me. I had a slightly tetchy exchange on twitter recently with someone (who wishes to remain anonymous) who sent me aopen access oppose paywalls link to their paper and asked me to circulate it if I liked it. Problem was the link was to a journal, where you had to pay to read. I could read it for free if I really wanted to, thanks to my LSE job (universities subscribe to all the big journals), but it’s still a hassle, and anyway, that’s not really the point – I hate the elitism of gated journals, so why link to them? The would-be self publicist replied that for a young academic, there’s no option, and then various other people weighed in (twitter’s fun like that).

If you’re in an NGO that doesn’t have a subscription, the paperwork to reclaim your $20 for buying a paper online is likely to put you off altogether. The broader consequence is that academia retreats inside it’s self referential, peer-reviewed, paywalled filter bubble, and the rest of the world remains largely oblivious, deepening the gulf between the universities and the practitioners. Not good for either camp, I would argue.

Net result, I think I now have a personal policy of not linking to gated journal articles on twitter or in the blog, but should I go further and set up a sign-up pledge for other social media users, as Owen Barder has done so laudably on manels (1296 currently signed up)?

Arguments for:

  • Keep up the pressure for Open Access, which is making significant progress, even if it is prompting journals to now demand that authors pay to publish their articles (see this brilliant long read on how Robert Maxwell established the journal model for superprofits).
  • Push authors to publish drafts on ResearchGate, blog their findings, and otherwise try and cater to the mass of humanity that languishes outside Academia and the paywall.
  • Encourage people to use Sci Hub as an alternative way to find content (I checked and sure enough, the original article that prompted the exchange is on there for free, as is my bête noire, the ODI’s unacceptably gated Development Policy Review (note, no link!), but are all development-related journals up there?).
  • Dance on Robert Maxwell’s grave (there’s a queue, so you need to plan ahead)

Boycott_Elsevier_2Arguments against/complicating factors:

  • Apparently health and education journals won’t publish your article if you have put up the data elsewhere, eg on ResearchGate
  • Some tricky grey areas – eg gated newspapers like the FT and the Economist. Also, book publishing is way behind on Open Access. OK, OUP was willing to publish How Change Happens free online (and they swear it has actually improved sales), but most books are not. Does that mean I should stop reviewing books until they’re Open Access?

So I ran a twitter poll, and of the 113 votes, 76% supported a pledge – how about this for a text? The pledge: ‘I will not promote or link to gated journals on social media’


Q: Won’t this punish researcherS trying to get their work known?

A: Researchers have a number of options, from blogging the findings of their papers, to creating a landing page for their work, to publishing in draft on ResearchGate. There is no excuse for just publishing behind a paywall.

Q: Won’t this deprive social media of access to scholarship?

A: See above, plus this is part of a longer term exercise to reduce the barriers that prevent knowledge circulating

Coming Soon

Coming Soon

more widely in society.

Q: What about books?

A: Agreed, this is tricky, since Open Access is in an earlier stage in book publishing (Google Books, and some publishers starting to go OA). But the level of price gouging in journals is far greater than for most books.

Would appreciate your help with further suggestions for FAQs and views on the topic. Unless you convince me otherwise, I will then put up a pledge for people to sign up to.

And thanks David Steven for this wonderful excerpt on pledging from Catch 22


  1. Hi Duncan – a really important conversation! We routinely encourage practitioners to invest in understanding evolving sector knowledge about ‘how change happens’ to inform choices about how best to engage and contribute to positive change. Where so much information is available through ‘google searches’ and the likes, paywalls mean that key sources are unlikely to be tapped, and fail to move us forward in the ways that they could or should. With that said, I should also acknowledge that we actually aim to publish in journals from time to time (though admittedly only a very very small percentage of Oxfam’s research falls into this category). The reasons vary, but there’s something about supporting personal motivation and professional development of staff – being able to cite publications an important CV builder for many professions. There’s also something about the value of the peer review processes that publications in such journals involves – having your work critiqued, challenged, and ultimately strengthened by a review of external peers. While its easy enough to imagine how we might solicit feedback, constructive critiques that move a piece of work towards a shared ambition to publish is harder to simulate. And linked to this – and perhaps of greater importance to NGOs than other actors – there is something about the value of external validation / credibility that comes from having your work acknowledged in such publications. Of course, we are committed to the principles of open source, and where we do publish in journals, we have been trying to strike the balance by making ‘pre-submission’ versions of papers available on Oxfam’s P&P website… would welcome hearing how others manage some of these trade offs.

  2. I certainly understand where you are coming from. I refuse to pay the “per article” fees in principle (and that fact that I couldn’t afford to only adds to that). Nowhere in my book does $36 seem reasonable as the charge for reading an article.

    On the other hand, like you, in many cases I can access the journal article I want for free at my local university library. However, when I can’t there is another way to get around the paywall — and it has existed since before journals were all on line — write to the author. One can always write to the corresponding author of the journal article and ask for a reprint. At one time, this meant that the author would mail you a copy of the article, but now it means that they will send you a copy of the author’s PDF. And most authors are pleased to respond — and usually very promptly. The copyright agreement for most journals, including those behind a paywall, permits the author to share the article in response to a request for a reprint. I know from personal experience both as an author and as a user. Hence, I have no trouble sharing the link to a published article with people as I know that there are ways to access published work even if it is behind a paywall.

    Additionally, I would like to point out that there is a downside to Open Access publication. As an author who has published the results of his own research and collaborated with others in the same, I would have a very difficult time coming up with the 1,000-2,000 $US needed to have my work published as Open Access. When I finished by PhD, I went to work for an iNGO and continued to write up my research for publication. However, there was no publication budget. Were it not for those journals that are behind a paywall (and most of the relevant ones in my field were at that time), I would not have been able to afford to have it published. Think also of the university professor whose entire professional development budget amounts to $1,500/year (not uncommon in Canada). Where will they come up with fees for Open Access publication unless they hold significant research grants — and many don’t — but have research worthy of peer-reviewed publication? Finally, what about the many good researchers in developing countries — the ones that Open Access is supposed to help by removing the barriers to reading articles? Where will they get the money to publish their work as Open Access?

    So, it is not as straightforward as one might think. Open Access may inadvertently be creating another form of discrimination — and the work behind a paywall may be more accessible than some would let on. Some food for thought.


  3. Great post. I’ve done peer reviews for gated journals and really don’t see the value added of the process. These journals, at least in the development and related fields, don’t ensure greater accuracy or reliability. They basically just get in the way, among other things separating academics from practitioners, and for the most part are just self-perpetuating institutions yielding counter-productive results.

    Now, I feel much more positively about paying fees to journalistic outlets that need funds to carry out their vital investigative and explanatory work. But such outlets are generating rather than simply processing (as the gated journals do) important information and analysis. And as the Washington Post, for example, accurately proclaims, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” But that’s a separate discussion.

  4. The gated journal article follows similar performative rules than the 30-40 page evaluation report a consultant submits. These rituals usually produce a lot of writing that few people will read entirely-especially outside the narrow professional bubble in which the article/report was produced. That said, for the time being the onus is mostly on those who produce research to make it more accessible. I usually don’t share links to journal articles on social media-not just because of the paywall, but because I anticipate that the 25 page document behind the paywall will most likely end up on the pdf graveyard on someone’s computer…it’s important to share the abstract, but also key findings in an accessible way and then offer options for those who would like to read more, e.g. links to open repositories, pre-prints on a website and the final, paywalled article. I wrote “Don’t post direct links to your new journal article!” earlier this year (http://aidnography.blogspot.se/2017/04/dont-post-direct-links-paywalled-academic-research-journal-articles.html). I doubt that the relatively small and relatively ‘unimportant’ and mostly social science-based development community can exercise any real pressure on the global academic publishing oligopoly. A lot depends on ‘best practice’ and producers changing their habits to create additional routes for exploring their research.

  5. The OECD paywall for its publications is an issue I have tried to raise with its publications services – with no reply forthcoming. As I understand it, the OECD budget comes from taxpayers of member countries. Its various types of publications are mostly written by officials of the OECD (salaries paid by taxpayers) or academics (generally funded by taxpayers). They are (unlike most academic journals!) well-written – throw an important light on thinking about public services – and should therefore be a key part of the democratic debate about the machinery and policies of government

  6. This is not a straight forward issue. I completely agree that the price per article in academic paywall journals is exorbitant – not least since the editors, peer reviewers and authors all provide their contributions to the product for free.

    That said, to boycott would have unintended consequences. Yes, it is great to put pressure on publishers to reduce prices, but open publishing at the moment only pushes the high cost onto the author, making the difference in ability to publish between those who have large research grants and those who don’t even bigger. In my field (international relations), all the most prestigious journals with strong and rigorous peer review processes are gated. If you want to take part in and further the academic debate in your field, you need to do some of your publishing in these journals (as well as for the small reasons of getting jobs and promotions…).

    We are so used to accessing whatever info we want on the internet without paying, while we wouldn’t dream of going into a shop and asking for a book or newspaper for free. This has wreaked havoc on the newspaper industry and been great for Google and Facebook. The result is we have a lot more content providers and a lot fewer reporters in journalism these days (with some notable exceptions – who all have paywalls). Like good journalism, I don’t think it is wrong to pay for good books and even, as long as the price is reasonable, good academic articles. A blanket boycott seems over the top. Not least since, as other commenters have noted, there are usually ways – including contacting the author – of getting hold of a version of the manuscript for free.

  7. Thanks for all the comments, which make me think that the problem is the Journals, not Paywalls. As long as Journals act as gatekeepers for both knowledge and academic careers, they will always use that power to gouge excessive rents (whether from readers or contributors) at the expense of the free exchange of ideas. Robert Maxwell has a lot to answer for (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science). So the problem seems to be, as long as we accept the power of journals, Open Access is problematic (shoving costs from readers to writers, without denting superprofits). But surely the journal business model is ripe for disruption and a boycott on social media might help? Thoughts?

  8. Yes to a boycott on social media. In a busy life, links that are in effect dead to most people are frustrating and almost insulting, as if it’s assumed. ‘you’re one of us, with this special, expensive access’. And it would hurt: as we all now know, Social Media is a key driver of traffic.
    And on the comments from those in organisations that do publish in gated journals, for understandable reasons, (most of us shop in supermarkets that we know gouge food producers) what about a policy that anything published behind a paywall must publish openly the kind of re-purposed content other comments mentioned, accessible and summarised. And while we’re at it, you model it well here Duncan: research is only better for communicating progress, interim results, tentative conclusions, to include potential users and consumers in the process of knowledge generation.

  9. I’ll offer my twopennyworth from my perspective as Oxfam’s only in-house ‘academic’ journal editor, of Gender & Development (www.genderanddevelopment. org).. G&D is published for us by Routledge/Taylor & Francis who allow Oxfam to offer the entire content of the journal free access via Oxfam’s Policy and Practice site. Obviously we think it would be unethical NOT to offer the articles free of charge to development practitioners and activists with no access to academic libraries and our publishers get that point. More publishers should follow their example! It doesn’t affect the business model, as evidenced by our very healthy life as a conventional paid-for journal – it means people who CAN pay, do pay, and other people don’t. I think there is a fourth sector kind of way of doing all this, which our example shows being pioneered. And it means we publish rigorous peer-reviewed articles by and for activists from inside and outside actual academia, using evidence and analysis to help change the world. I’d like to see this debate being less polarised – it truly is possible to offer content both paid and free for difference audiences based on capacity to pay, and that’s what our model with T&F has become.

  10. The unpaywall.org browser extension is really useful: it automatically searches for an open-access copy of any paywalled paper that you’re looking at (e.g. a preprint version or a copy on an author’s personal website), and adds a link on the right-hand side of the page if it finds one.

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