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The Cost of Knowledge

Top-tier research universities generally have access to current, top-tier research - but that may be about to change. Elsevier, one of the world’s largest academic publishing companies, has recently increased its subscription costs, impacting thousands of scientists. More than 60 universities have suffered a lack of renewed subscriptions since an attempted national contract with Elsevier fell through in 2017. As of February 2019, scientists in German, Hungarian, and Swedish universities no longer have access, while universities in countries such as Taiwan and Norway are in the middle of negotiations. According to Nature, “institutions’ desire to combine the price they pay for subscriptions...with the cost that libraries and researchers pay to make articles open-access” hinders the signing of deals. Research universities pay companies like Elsevier to publish their scientific articles in return for access for their students and researchers. Meanwhile, other organizations are considering buying individual subscriptions to specific journals or using free-access platforms. Based on several studies, universities pay hundreds of thousands, even millions, for access to current, top-tier research.

For example, the UC system spent nearly 11 million dollars for 1,500 subscriptions to Elsevier journals in 2018. As of March 2019, the UC Systems have broken apart from Elsevier. The UC system wanted to negotiate a ‘read-and-publish’ contract which would allow public access to the journal, recognizing the current system’s unfairness to the public, who fund the research through taxes but are unable to access it. They have been working toward ‘open-access’ research since 2013, working towards publishing on public repositories instead of subscription-based journals. The UC system accounts for nearly 10% of all US scientific articles, holding influence on the nature of publishing and negotiations with Elsevier.

Based on data from the consulting firm Outsell, it costs about $3,500 to $4,000 to publish in the science-publishing industry. However, free-access publishing platforms such as Biomed Central and PLoS range from $8 to $3,900. The disparity in cost and exclusivity has led to questions of whether universities should use their own platforms or publish on those that are free-access rather than subscription-based.

The significant break with Elsevier by the UC system has opened talks in the scientific community for an open-access business model, where researchers would pay to publish, and readers would have free access. Eleven European agencies have accumulated over eight billion dollars to fund Plan S (Science, Speed, Solution, and Shock) in 2020, where selected scientists can freely publish to an open-access platform. Not only is research expensive, but publication and distribution is also a heavy expenditure for researchers. The cost of publishing is often understated but remains incredibly relevant, as it hinders scientific progress and research. With the growth of the internet and dissemination of information, the scientific community must ask whether its priority is itself or to the betterment of the public’s knowledge.

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