It’s a dirty open secret in academia. Academics work very hard to prove that their work is worth taxpayers’ money, but then publish it in journals that are prohibitively expensive, not only to taxpayers but to academics themselves. In a 2012 memo, the Harvard Library was forced to declare that the fees for such access were becoming “financially unsustainable.”
One way around the problem is to use hacking services, such as Sci-Hub. The site boasts of offering almost 70% of all academic research. However, users of the site find themselves in a difficult legal situation.
The good news is that the backlash against journal subscriptions has led to a change in behavior. Researchers are increasingly publishing work in open access journals, which allow readers to download studies for free. A 2014 study found that more than half of all articles published between 2007 and 2012 were available through this route.
Today, a new study found that nearly half of all academic articles that users want to read are already available for free. These studies may or may not have been published in an open access journal, but there is a legally free version available for a reader to download.
To come to this conclusion, researcher Heather Piwowar and her colleagues used data from a web browser extension they had developed called Unpaywall. When users of the extension land on an academic article, it scours the web to find if there are any free versions to download from places such as pre-print services or those downloaded from academic websites.
In an analysis of 100,000 articles polled by Unpaywall, Piwowar and colleagues found that up to 47% of them were looking for studies that had a free version available. The study has yet to be peer-reviewed, but Ludo Waltman of Leiden University told Nature it was “careful and thorough.”
This does not mean that 47% of all academic articles have free versions. This figure is only 27%. It does show, however, that at least Unpaywall users are more interested in studies which tend to be published in more accessible journals.
The finding is based on two trends. First, academics increasingly publish in open access journals. Looking at a random sample of studies published in 2015, around 45% were published in such journals. Second, studies published in open access journals receive more citations than average. It’s not clear if this relates to search quality or ease of access, but it’s a positive sign for a more open internet.
The academic publishing industry is not taking this aside. On the one hand, it is about going to court to have illegal access canceled. In a recent court victory, publishing giant Elsevier received millions in damages from Sci-Hub. On the other hand, it offers more open access journals or payment options to make paid articles available for free. Maybe soon no one will need to illegally read academic papers.