Your Turn: Pay Up or Perish

The publisher of a top-ranked journal in business ethics recently asked if my co-authors and I would like to pay US$2,000 so that our accepted article could be read free of charge by interested parties.

After some discussion, we declined. We know this means that our paper can only be viewed by people who have access to paid subscriptions—probably through their university libraries—or who pay the individual price of $24.95 to download it. But since none of us felt this particular article was mainstream to us as authors, we were willing to save money rather than pay the price that would allow the article to be read and cited by more of our peers.

For many reasons, I see a troubling element in the notion of paying to publish. Historically, the idea of academic publishing was to create a free market of ideas where everyone had equal access to top journals through public and university libraries. When there were few elite journals and researchers, the system worked well. Times have changed.

The Association of Business Schools now evaluates more than 850 rated journals in its Academic Journal Quality Guide. Generally, university libraries subscribe to the journals most valued by the faculty at their institutions. At Villanova School of Business (VSB), we identified 61 top-tier, 111 second-tier, and 143 acceptable alternative journals; the school subscribes to most of these, and our faculty have access to their content. If we want to read articles published in journals to which the VSB library does not subscribe, we must pay a fee.

One thing that bothers me is that scholars don’t benefit monetarily from their own intellectual capital. Publishers obtain the research articles for free, but they sell the articles to interested schools and scholars, so they’re the ones who see a profit. On the other hand, faculty do see rewards. At VSB, for instance, whenever articles are accepted into top journals, faculty earn points toward merit pay, tenure, promotion, and grant funding. The numbers of citations and peer reviews they receive for their published articles also serve as key metrics for promotion, tenure, and endowed chair consideration.

Therefore, I’m much more concerned about other aspects of the current arrangement in which academics must pay to read new research or pay to provide access to their own.

1. The pricing system leads to a further stratification among b-schools. Few universities can afford to subscribe to all the relevant journals. Even fewer institutions cover the fees faculty members may incur to purchase articles from other journals or to pay for their own articles to be open access. Universities that have that kind of money tend to be older and elite. Does the current pricing structure make it even more difficult for other schools to attract top faculty and produce high-quality research?

2. The system places an undue economic burden on junior faculty. As a senior faculty member with tenure and an endowed chair, I probably don’t leave much on the table when I choose not to pay to make my articles free to all. Yet when junior faculty members are in the same situation, I advise them to pay up. It’s essential that junior faculty not only get their work published in such journals, but also get it cited early in their careers so they develop the strong reputations that allow them to earn tenure or promotions. But is it right for their institutions to expect them to shoulder the economic burden of making their research open access?

3. Research is not being read. This is the most damaging outcome of all. Let me explain.

In most countries, Internet resources like Wikipedia and personal blogs give us open access to so many ideas that it’s like the free press in the 19th century times a million, or free radio and television of the 20th century times a thousand. With so much information widely available, why should we complain about limited access to academic research?

The problem is that most of what’s available for free isn’t truly useful. In his 2009 book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson notes that if you give away just enough material to interest people, the serious ones will pay for the rest of it—the part that’s really of value. In the case of academic publishing, the information that’s free on the web includes article titles, key words, author names, publication outlets, and abstracts.

Researchers choose which article to pay for depending on what they hope they’ll find within it. It is quite likely that some academics without access to the full articles are citing them based on abstracts only. The underlying premise of academic scholarship is that it builds on past works that are well-known and have been scrutinized by peers. But citing an article based on an abstract isn’t fair scrutiny.

This practice probably isn’t happening frequently among faculty who work at wealthy educational institutions or live in countries with robust free libraries. But what if they work at less wealthy institutions or live where there is limited access to academic journals? Will their research be less thorough, causing their careers to stall? Or will they share downloaded articles with their colleagues—a possible violation of intellectual property rights? Surely these are not desirable outcomes.

I have an even bigger worry. Suppose researchers locate two relevant articles. One is free online; the other one costs $24.95 to download. Because they decide to read only the free one, they aren’t exposed to the counter arguments in the other article.

The problem is that, as humans, we’re very biased about what we choose to read—we ignore what we don’t want to believe and we redefine what we don’t like to make it fit our beliefs. Daniel Kahneman writes about this tendency in Thinking, Fast and Slow. The only way we will alter strongly held beliefs is to encounter evidence-based ideas developed through the scientific method, as free from cognitive biases as academics and peer reviewers can make them. When there’s limited access to academic research, we don’t encounter these alternative viewpoints. We never open up our minds.


So how do we take costs out of the research equation? The most obvious solution is to make academic journals open access—at a minimum, to those employed by an academic institution; ideally, to a much broader array of interested parties. Yet this solution is naïve. Journal publishers serve an important role in the review, acceptance, and distribution of scholarly research, and open access to all articles could be devastating to their business models.

An alternative solution—already in place at some journals—is to create a system where a professor registers and provides certain credentials to a publisher in order to get open access to that publisher’s other scholarly works. Another possibility is for institutions to expand the number of journals they subscribe to and/ or reimburse their professors for costs they incur to read and publish research.

Yet for some faculty, that would not be enough. In my personal experience, I often need access to up to a hundred articles when I’m starting work in a new area. Two-thirds of the articles I desire come with a cost. If I’m on campus, most of those costs are covered by my department or the library. But if I’m off-campus when I’m researching and writing, my choices are to wait until I’m back at school to read the articles, have a graduate assistant source the article on campus—or pay up.

Paying up is rarely a practical concern for me. But I worry about those for whom costly access to academic research really means no access. I believe it’s time for publishers and professors to engage in vigorous dialogue about ways to make research more widely available. Without such solutions, we’ll have to deal with the long-term implications of pay-for-access—and what it means for academic integrity.

Stephen A. Stumpf is a professor of management at Villanova School of Business at Villanova University located in Pennsylvania.