The problem with paywalls

What is wrong with the traditional publishing model?

Sometimes people argue that Open Access devalues the important work of academic research by making it ‘free’, but Open Access does not remove the cost of producing and publishing academic research – instead it changes who pays that cost.

The traditional model is a ‘pay-to-read’ business model (i.e. if you want to read you must pay the publisher). In this model the publications must be hidden from potential readers who have not paid, so the texts are placed behind paywalls that can only be passed through by paying a one-time fee or proving that you or your institution has previously paid a subscription fee (i.e. logging in through an authentication system).

In the ‘pay-to-read’ model we have a perverse situation where universities and research funders pay academics to do research (and other academics also peer review it for free) but those same funders, academics, peer reviewers, and the general public (who ultimately have paid for the research to be produced) cannot read that research – unless they pay the publishers – because the publishers have put it behind paywalls.


Scholarly publishers make a valuable contribution to publications (particularly through quality control mechanisms like peer review and editorial work for monographs) but one of their primary roles – to disseminate the research findings – is severely impeded by the erecting of paywalls and it is audacious for the publisher to prevent all the other (and more significant) contributors to the production of the research findings (taxpayers, funders, institutions, and researchers) from accessing the results unless they purchase it.


What is the cost for the finances of the research ecosystem?

The cost of accessing scholarly journals – of passing the paywalls – is shockingly high: a 2015 investigation put the cost for UK universities at £94 million in 2014 alone to access the journals of just 10 scholarly publishers, which led to JISC estimating a total spend of £180 million per year on all academic journals. The problem is so large it even has its own Wikipedia page.

And universities and researchers cannot simply unsubscribe from an expensive journal and subscribe to a cheaper one instead, because the findings in each journal are unique and, in effect, each journal is a monopoly.


Holding a monopoly on the content of each journal means there there is little motivation for publishers to be restrained with pricing and much motivation for an ever increasing number of journals. As a result some of the major scholarly publishers make extraordinary profits: the 2017 annual report of the the RELX Group (which owns Elsevier) tells us the company made a profit of £2.3 billion (billion!) and with a practically unheard of profit margin of 31% (Investopedia says that 11% was the average profit margin for 2017).


For some Open Access advocates, the Gold model of Open Access (see here for more details on the different ‘routes’ to Open Access) will not improve the financial cost of publishing and reading research as publishers will aim to recoup any decreases in their subscription income through the Open Access Fees (or Article Processing Charges) that they charge to make the publications Open Access. Some journals already cost over £3,000 per article to publish Open Access.

However, it is likely that the funders and institutions that pay Open Access Fees will be able to set policies on the maximum Open Access Fees that they are willing to pay in a way that academic libraries have not felt able to do with subscriptions to journals.

For the effect of paywalls on longer forms of academic writing please see our post Open Access and monographs.

Does all this mean that publishers are ‘bad actors’?

No, only that as an industry and as individual companies they are understandably reluctant to give up a commercial model that has been very successful for them in favour of a model that is relatively untested and probably less lucrative.

That said, many significant scholarly publishers are openly in favour of Open Access:


At Wiley, we support the growing movement to make science more open, because this leads to a fairer, more efficient and accountable research landscape, which will ultimately drive a more effective and faster pace of discovery


Springer is proud of our track record…as an industry leader in establishing open access as a model for expanding access to top quality scientific publications for researchers worldwide

Oxford University Press:

Oxford University Press (OUP) is mission-driven to facilitate the widest possible dissemination of high-quality research. We embrace both green and gold open access (OA) publishing to support this mission

Cambridge University Press:

For Cambridge University Press, OA plays an important part in allowing us to fulfil our mission of furthering the advancement of learning, knowledge and research worldwide

Many individuals working in the scholarly publishing industry are surely as dedicated to the effective dissemination of academic research as the most ardent Open Access advocates and can likely see the benefits to scholarship of a free-to-read system. Their concerns about Open Access likely revolve around its financial implications for the publishing industry. However, for many advocates of Open Access this is less of a concern than the problems that the paywalls of the ‘pay-to-read’ model causes for the practice of academic research.

What is Sci-Hub?

Paywalls are such an impediment to the practice of academic research that many researchers attempt to illegally bypass them. This has been termed ‘Black Open Access’ though piracy and copyright infringement is not a legitimate model of Open Access. This can be seen being openly practiced on the Twitter hashtag #CanIHazPDF through which researchers ask other researchers to share PDFs of publications they don’t have legitimate access to.

A more systematic approach is pursued by Sci-Hub, which is a pirate website that flaunts the copyright of authors and scholarly publishers by freely distributing tens of millions of articles and papers that usually sit behind paywalls. It is widely used throughout academia by researchers who cannot access the papers and articles they need to conduct their research.

The situation created by paywalls is so dire that a journalist at a national newspaper, writing recently about the ‘pay-to-read’ model, came to the incredible conclusion that

the ethical choice is to read the stolen material published by Sci-Hub.

Amazingly, Sci-Hub is used even at institutions that have legal subscriptions to those publications because the process for locating the subscribed version and logging in past the paywalls is so cumbersome. A typical attempt to access an article behind a paywall is described in the tweet below (and in the responses to the tweet).

For the avoidance of doubt we don’t endorse the infringement of copyright and would urge all academics to contribute to the reforming of scholarly publishing rather than attempting to bypass it.

Continue reading: The transition to Open Access

Header image credit
Eastley, M. (2013) Berlin water tower installation. Available from: (Accessed 17 October 2018)