As a student, it’s no secret that academic journals are crucial to your research, and understanding of both fine details and the larger, overall picture of what you are studying. Yet, students often run into access barriers while trying to do research, forcing them to settle on what they can get access to, rather than what they need most. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the way academic research is currently shared is that, even though you — through your taxes and tuition — underwrite a vast portion of research, you’re denied access to the results unless you also pay often very expensive subscription fees.
Even beyond the classroom context, limited access to research has a tremendous impact on people’s lives. When doctors are denied access to medical research, patient outcomes suffer- especially in developing countries where there are fewer resources for medical professionals to commit to research access.
In the business field, small companies will lose opportunities to innovate when they do not have access to the most up-to-date research upon which to build.
So, why is Access limited?
The price of academic journals’ subscriptions has increased tremendously in the in the last two decades. Even the most well-funded institutions libraries are affected by the cost and cannot afford to have access to them all. In 2010 alone, the University of Georgia cancelled subscriptions to nearly 600 journals. Unfortunately, this seems to be the ongoing trend among colleges and universities rather than an exception.
In developing countries where institution can only afford a small fraction of the access they need, the problem has severely caused much limitation to both the students and the researchers. For example, a prominent researcher in India has said:
“Given such unequal access, Indian scientists inevitably struggle to perform world class science. The fact is that equitable access to current scientific information is essential if India is to take its rightful place in the world.”
Commercial Publishers and High Cost of Access
As students struggle to afford access to essential journals, the largest publishers continue to make profit margins at and in excess of 30%. How do they make such high profit margins? Well, the market for academic journals is unlike any other. The product, journal articles, is produced by researchers and then given to publishers for free in exchange for being published. After going through the peer review process etc, the publisher then charge campus libraries exorbitant fees for access although universities do contribute significantly to the creation of articles. The irony.
Journals published for by for-profit companies are many times more expensive than those published by their non-profit counterparts. This result is surprising: whereas non-profit publishers are usually scholarly societies whose mission is to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible, for-profit publishers’ interest is in maximizing profit.
It is important to note that nearly all journals used to be published by scholarly societies, but as commercial publishers have taken over and charged higher prices, as shown in the graph, access to this crucial information has gotten more and more expensive.
For as long as access to research is locked away behind price barriers, the public will miss out on opportunities that are possible as compared to when research is openly accessible and searchable. Today, millions of articles are published every year- so many that a researcher could only hope to read a small subset of all articles in a given field, and never hope to be on top of all the latest developments. If the material was given free access to all, we could easily search digitally across all journals at once, allowing us to have an over-arching view of a particular field and uncovering trends that no human researcher could discern. This is certainly possible if there is no barriers in place.
 “Expensive Journals List: Current MIT subscriptions costing more than $5,000/year,” MIT Libraries, 07/16/09
 “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 06/13/10
 UGA Libraries, “Final List of Journal Cancellations,” 07/28/10
 UCLA Library, “Comparable University Libraries,” 01/28/10
 “Why India Needs Open Acces,” Open and Shut?, 05/05/06 )
 “Elsevier 2009 $2 billion profits could fund worldwide OA at $1,383 per article,” Heather Morrison, 04/27/10
 “Wiley STM: 3rd quarter profits up 18%,” Heather Morrison, 04/26/10