Paying to read taxpayer-supported research

Randy Schekman writing for Scientific American (6-20-2019): Scientific Research Shouldn't Sit behind a Paywall: The public pays taxes to support research; they should be able to access the results
Comment: Exactly! I advocated for that several years ago — hence this article I posted then.
Excerpt: “Most of the scientific research conducted in the U.S. and abroad is supported by federal government funds — that is to say, by taxpayer dollars. Yet much of the information that results from such funding is not publicly available outside of research institutions that can afford expensive scientific journal subscriptions.”

Making research findings freely available is an essential aid to medical progress, experts say
Excerpt: “Despite all the effort and attention put into funding medical research through charitable and government programs, publishing models that restrict access to research outcomes mean that profit comes at the expense of human health. The systems that encourage poor research and poor communication of research findings may seem like dry subjects but the waste they cause costs lives.

The Role of Open Access in Reducing Waste in Medical Research

Five companies control more than half of academic publishing

Concerns about industry dominance in diabetes research
Excerpt: “Diabetes research is dominated by a small group of prolific authors, raising questions about the imbalance of power and conflict of interests in this field … 44% were employed by pharmaceutical companies and 56% were academics who worked closely with the industry. And of the 991 RCTs, 906 [91.4%] were commercially sponsored.”
Comment: If McDonald's were this unethical, they'd sponsor research indicating that Big Macs are good for you.

The results of taxpayer-supported scientific research is usually published in journals requiring pricey subscriptions or outrageous fees to read a single article. For example, a article (Eat to Dream: Study Shows Dietary Nutrients Associated With Certain Sleep Patterns) discussing Dietary nutrients associated with short and long sleep duration. Data from a nationally representative sample said it was supported by “grants from National Institutes of Health (T32HL007713, 12SDG9180007 and P30HL101859).”

The latter article confirms that “This work was supported by T32HL007713, 12SDG9180007 and P30HL101859. Also, we wish to thank the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] for collecting these data and making them available.

Tax dollars make the CDC possible. Taxes also help educate scientists and pay for them to work in taxpayer-supported universities that collaborate with taxpayer-funded institutions such as the CDC and other governmental agencies.

When taxes support scientists and their research, shouldn't the people who fund that research—taxpayers—be able to read its results without being shaken down for even more money? I say YES!

Another journal charges 36 pounds (about $55) per article.

Besides the ridiculously excessive current $31.50 fee (with possible taxes) to read that one article, accessing the full article requires a five-step process (six if you include agreeing to their Purchase Agreement Terms and Conditions). If I did that for every article I wish to read, I'd be so broke I'd be homeless and I would spend half the year paying to read the results of research my taxes already paid for. Nuts.

This is an abomination that makes me cheer open-access journals. Fee-based journals inherently favor scientists at universities that pay for journal access, typically with tax dollars. Fee-based journals inherently discriminate against and thwart others, including millions of very bright people in impoverished nations who could do more to contribute to the progress of mankind if they had free access to all journals.

Case study: American Chemical Society

Let's say I joined the ACS to read one of their publications. For $151 per year, would I be able to read all of their articles? If I'm correctly interpreting their fine print, the answer is NO. I'd get “online access to any 25 articles.” What if I wanted more? I'd pay $12 to read each additional one, evidently with access limited to “48 hours from initial article request.

What kind of sick game is this? Charging me every time I turn around and then limiting access? For what reason?

ACS offers an “ACS Member E-Passport” costing “$1,000 for 500 articles” with a “Limit of 500 articles per membership term.” Ridiculous! What if I want to read thousands more? Am I blocked, period, or do I pay $12 for each additional article? Nuts.

I like to read about 20 articles per day, so let's do the math.

20 articles/day x 365 days/year = 7300 articles/year

7300 articles @ $12/article = $87,600/year

$87,600/year + $151 membership fee = $87,751

$87,751 - $300 (for the 25 “free” articles) = $87,451.

With an ACS Member E-Passport, I'd save $6000 for the 500 included articles but pay $1000 for it, for a net savings of $5000, so my yearly total would be $82, 451.

Gee whiz, for a mere 82 to 87 grand per year, I could read their publications, which are a small fraction of the ones I read. If all publishers were as greedy as they are, I'd pay a few million dollars per year.

That's clearly a ripoff, but I am not the only one being screwed: taxpayers who funded universities, scientists, and their research have access so tightly controlled the information in the information age is bottled up by organizations such as the ACS who parasitize us to benefit themselves. Even if you have the money, no one has the time if you read articles in as many fields of research as I do.

UPDATE: I delayed publishing this for over two weeks to give ACS a chance to deny any of my allegations. I promptly received a canned message (“Please allow us approximately 24 hours to appropriately review and respond to all inquiries.”) and another (“Thank you for contacting the American Chemical Society. I am forwarding your request to our Member & Subscriber Services unit who will be able to assist you further.”). I never heard from them, nor did I receive a reply from any of the other five ACS people or departments I contacted.

I wrote again and received no reply, which manifests their arrogance and corroborates my facts that they evidently cannot refute. By ignoring my accusations, they're using a let's-just-bury-our-heads-in-the-sand-and-hope-sheeple-won't-notice approach to dealing with the reality of the Internet age: we don't need publishers who charge outrageous fees, restricting information to only those rich enough to pay for it; we need open information access for all, from rich to poor.

Information fuels progress and the economy. If you're one of the many millions of Americans either out of work or working for peanuts, you should realize how ACS and other greedy publishers are hurting you by doing what is best for them.

I sometimes scan hundreds of articles per day to find the ones I need. I can't scan them without reading them, and their abstracts (summaries) often provide insufficient information. So instead of 20 articles per day, my above example could grow to 200 to 400 articles per day, and thus over one million dollars per year—just to read articles!

The New England Journal of Medicine's (NEJM) regular yearly price is now (3-30-2013) $109 after being reduced from their regular $169 … for a single journal!

Oh wait, it also includes “50 free article views from the NEJM Archive 1812 – 1989.” I sometimes go through more articles in a single day, so what should I do the remaining 364 days of the year? Become a sheeple and remove half my brain so I'm stupid enough to think that restricting article access is a good idea? For whom? Certainly not me! Certainly not patients!

So, NEJM, what are you thinking? Or are you?

If fee-based journals paid to educate scientists, supported their universities and research, then they would have every right to demand payment for accessing articles written by those scientists. But that's not how the system works. Taxpayers pay for most of it, but the whores at fee-based journals hold that information hostage in a world that clearly needs greater knowledge dissemination.

That's why I deeply mourn the loss of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide at age 26 after he “was arrested by federal authorities in connection with systematic downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR”—a site that hides information from those who do not submit to its highway robbery and waste-of-time policies. JSTOR says they “are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz.” Sure.

Swartz was a gifted individual “involved in the development of the web feed format RSS” and other Internet innovations. Is the world a better place because the thugs who went after him succeeded in restricting access to information? Obviously not. This was a victory for tyranny, not freedom, so it isn't surprising that the U.S. government prosecuted Swartz.

The USA is supposed to stand for freedom, but our freedoms are being progressively eroded by a government that gives only lip service to it. If our government truly cared about liberty, our freedoms would be maintained or increased, but instead we get more control, more tyranny, less freedom, and less money because of more taxes and fees. And when we try to get free access to information we paid for, we might get federal thugs putting us in handcuffs. Handcuffing taxpayer-supported information is unconscionable, and handcuffing those who make that info freely available is something that only a tyrannical government would do.

Our federal government did not financially hammer, or threaten to imprison, the Wall Street and other fat cats whose greed led to the financial collapse in 2008 that Main Street is still struggling to recover from. The feds looked the other way and even helped them with one bailout after another.

What principle of ethics could possibly explain why it is OK to ruthlessly prosecute Aaron Swartz but give a pass to, or reward, those leeches who screwed hundreds of millions of Americans now and in the future? But that's the reality of our once-great government that has morphed into a monster worse than the one our Founding Fathers fought to get off their backs: King George III of Great Britain. The taxes and controls he imposed were a tiny fraction of what our government imposes—yet we're free?

“There are 27 specific complaints against the British Crown set forth in the Declaration of Independence. To modern ears they still sound reasonable, in large part, because so many of them can be leveled against the federal government of the United States.”
P. J. O'Rourke

Freedom is increasingly a quaint fantasy in the United States, which is increasingly tyrannical. One hallmark of tyrannies is that they overlook misdeeds of their friends while crushing people who haven't earned their favor (such as with political donations, which is how Wall Streeters and other fat cats bought their exemption from prosecution).

The rule of law stipulates that all people are equally subject to the law, but the rule of law obviously no longer exists in the United States. If more people were awake, we could help our government get back on the right moral track. To do this, don't look the other way as sheeple do; protest the injustice. Hammering Swartz while giving a pass to the fat cats who screwed Americans is a gross injustice.

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden and Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau would be very proud of Aaron Swartz.

We, the taxpayers, paid to support that research, so we shouldn't need to pay money or time (with registering and jumping through hoops) to read it. Anyone who disagrees is a tyrant or otherwise morally defective. The justification for free access to taxpayer-supported research is clear; the justification for restricting it is laughable.

I would like to know what goes on in the minds of those who pat themselves on the back for restricting information access or prosecuting those who fight it. Such people likely exempt themselves from scrutiny by thinking they're robots doing their job, just following orders, but that excuse didn't work for German war criminals in the Nuremberg Trials, the take-home lesson of which is that individuals are responsible for their actions.

Robots unable to think for themselves cannot be blamed for what they do, but we can. Few evils in human history were directly committed by leaders; instead, they were committed by easily-duped automatons who gave too little thought to what they did. Blindly following leaders drunk on power, control, and suffused with the conviction that might makes right is a recipe for disaster. If you want the world to be a better place, stop following leaders and start following your heart and mind by proudly doing the right thing. If you think that people who pay for research should not have free access to it, you need a stat ethical and cognitive makeover.

Our government does not have enough money to find and punish every criminal, so it must wisely target the most dangerous ones. The men who brutally murdered my father were identified but not apprehended or prosecuted. The racists who killed my great-grandfather escaped justice, as do too many thugs who murder, rape, rob, or assault, such as the electrician who assaulted me in my home. I caught part of the assault on videotape, but not that or the wounds on my body led to a prosecution of the thug who obviously broke several federal and state laws.

When I worked as an ER doctor, I learned how many police departments were stretched dangerously thin, such as the Detroit police who told me they'd make a phone call (or two?) to investigate a murder. If that led somewhere, they'd pursue the case; if not, they'd drop it.

Imagine that: a murder of a precious human worth only a phone call, but the alleged crime of Aaron Swartz—downloading “too many” journal articles … sheesh!—warrants a massive federal investigation and a draconian punishment? What the heck is wrong with our leaders? Are they bereft of common sense? Don't they know how to prioritize things? Once the murderers and other dangerous criminals are behind bars, and once our national debt (which will eventually collapse our economy) is repaid, THEN consider prosecuting lesser offenses after legislators get in touch with reality.

“Journal articles do involve a flow of cash, Smith says—just not toward the university. The traditional model is that faculty members write the articles and relinquish their copyright to the journal, which then sell access to the published materials back to universities.” (source)

The reality is this: if Aaron Swartz succeeded in his mission, the United States would be a better place. All scientists and others would have free access to journal articles they need to accelerate their research and catalyze our economy. Free open-access journals would flourish, and the others would go away. Their time is past; we no longer need them, nor do we need their fine print and legal threats they use to drain exorbitant amounts of money from us so we can read the results of research our taxes already paid for. They are execrable, while Aaron Swartz was ahead of his time in seeing how they are hurting others in myriad ways by going way overboard in restricting access to information.

Aaron Swartz was courageous and principled enough to do the right thing. He deserves praise for being a Founding Father of Free Information. He didn't deserve being hounded by the American Gestapo who think we're all better off when information is priced so outrageously than even doctors such as myself can't afford more than a small fraction of it. Sure, that's what patients want: their doctors unable to afford to read articles that could help them deliver better care and advance medical science. That information came from research and scientists supported by tax dollars, but the whores at paid journals who parasitize society think it is better to hold that information hostage. What kind of monsters are they?

Why publish in the pricey paid journals?

Why do scientists publish in journals that block information from those who don't pay their astronomical fees and agree to their outrageous terms?

First, many scientists work for universities that pay for journal access. If it costs an arm and a leg, who cares? It's the taxpayers or students paying for it, not them. (Ever wonder why taxes and tuition are so high? Here's one of the many reasons.)

Second, many scientists are so myopically focused on their research they don't give a second of thought about how information from other scientists is bottled up by greedy publishers.

Third, some people—even scientists—are sociopaths who don't care about others; they care about themselves, period.

Fourth, most scientists work in only one field. People like me who need information from many fields are particularly stymied by moneygrubbing publishers.

Finally, scientists are human and susceptible to common human foibles, such as the desire to inflate one's ego. Many scientists do that by submitting their findings to the old prestigious journals instead of new open-access ones that will eventually be held in higher esteem than the journals that prosper at the expense of Americans and others around the world. It takes time to change attitudes and opinions. It also takes time to change reflexive behavior: there is no need to publish in paid journals; there is just a want, as in scientists who want to feed their egos. They are not serving humanity; they are serving themselves.

Universities are purportedly dedicated to disseminating information, yet they have largely been silent and even complicit in restricting access to it. That's odd only if you think they're more focused on education than profit.

Ironically, universities are often hotbeds of far-left liberalism that maligns capitalism and profits, but hypocritical professors espousing that drivel are often greedier than the businessmen they excoriate. They pat themselves on the back but put a chokehold on information, burden students with massive debt, and actively resist innovations to make education better, faster, more convenient, and vastly more affordable.


  1. From Paul Allen, the Idea Man genius who cofounded Microsoft: “ … we confronted a pivotal issue. Should we charge for access to our [Allen Institute for Brain Science] database? … The more widely the atlas was used, the greater the chance of a breakthrough. Charging for access might limit use to elite universities and the largest pharmaceutical firms, while shutting out some talented researcher[s] … who couldn't come up with the fee. We decided to place our data in the public domain, with free Internet access and a powerful, user-friendly interface. No registration would be required.”
  2. Getting the world to listen
    Excerpt: “Scientists and researchers often find it challenging to get people interested in their work. It is possible to be a leading expert in a field and still be unfamiliar outside the modest circle of colleagues in the same field. How to raise awareness through the media is the subject of an article …”
  3. Scientists 'Bad at Judging Peers' Published Work,' Says New Study
  4. One in 5 materials chemistry papers may be wrong, study suggests
  5. Nearly all of our medical research is wrong
    Comment: One root cause of this: give pharmaceutical and other companies an incentive to cherry-pick data, and the data they cherry-pick isn't reliably representative of reality. Beyond the corporate chicanery are scientists eager to discover something, prove something, or just make a name for themselves. The author acknowledged that by admitting “the fault lies mainly with perverse incentives” but tried sugarcoating the inimical effect of those incentives.

    POP QUIZ: I say “Theranos Lab.” You say?
    Hint #1: Deficiencies Found at Theranos Lab
    Hint #2: Theranos lab poses 'jeopardy to patient health': regulator
  6. Andrea Kuszewski: What Happened To Creativity In Science?
    Excerpt: “Collaboration, open source data, and new types of 'peer review' that includes some type of crowdsourcing, is where we need to be headed. Open Access journals, such as PLoS One should be the standard, not the exception, for data sharing.”
    Comment on the article, not the quote: More money than ever given to scientists; fewer big ideas in return.
  7. Who Killed the PrePrint and Could it Make a Return?
    Excerpt: “ … it was not until decades into the 20th century that peer review became more standardized. … Famously, Watson and Crick's double-helix paper from 1953 in Nature was never peer-reviewed. And Nature did not routinely practice peer review until 1967. This suggests that science was able to progress quite well for centuries despite the lack of a rigorous vetting system prior to communicating research.”
    Comment: Articles can be peer reviewed and free, but as this discussion indicates, peer review is not essential to communicating valuable information.
    Another excerpt: “Before the Internet, there were substantial costs to spreading knowledge through printed journals.”
    Comment: Now it's essentially zero.
    Another excerpt: “Surely there must be a way to satisfy the genuine concerns of some, with the greater good of the many?”
    Comment: Indeed.
  8. PeerJ PrePrints
  9. Free advice for journal big shots: Print Media's Digital Malpractice
    Excerpt: “The implications are clear: business models no longer last, in media especially. Rather than try to fit new technology into an old model, publishers need to embrace the new reality and reinvent their business. … At the root of the problem is that many publishers seem confused about what business they’re in. After all, the function of media is not to build a subscriber base, but to spread ideas.”
  10. Social Media Brings Academic Journals to General Readers
    Excerpt: “ … the majority of journals have yet to embrace social media and so lag behind professional organizations and patient advocacy groups in their ability to disseminate information in a culturally relevant way.”
    Comment: Their greedy business models manifest how most journals care more about profits than disseminating information.
  11. Scientific Insurgents Say 'Journal Impact Factors' Distort Science
  12. Beyond Peer Review: Finding a Way to Manage Errors in Research Data
    Excerpt: “Traditional peer review is not enough to ensure data quality amid the recent boom in scientific research findings, according to results of a 10-year collaboration between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and five technical journals.”
  13. Publication Of Flu Vaccines Studies In Prestigious Journals Are Determined By The Sponsor
  14. Gender Bias Found in How Scholars Review Scientific Studies
  15. Experts Propose Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials 'to Correct the Scientific Record'
  16. Business Models and the Singularity
  17. The Business Model Innovation Factory: How to Stay Relevant When The World is Changing
  18. Aaron Swartz's Girlfriend Accuses MIT Of Dragging Its Feet On Investigating His Suicide
    Commenting on that, Andy wisely noted, “The papers are paid with public money and should be public. Why should knowledge be available to the rich only? When M.I.T. became a slave of the rich and the government?”
  19. Aaron Swartz's Girlfriend Has A Damning Theory About The Young Reddit Co-Founder's Suicide
    Comment: This is one reason I am now less conservative. Years ago, I'd argue with friends or anyone else who criticized our government, which I now realize is a thug determined to sweep its misdeeds and atrocities under the rug while it gives itself the right to crush anyone it deems less than perfect, even if they pursue noble ends, such as Aaron Swartz. Our government operates on the might makes right principle: the same one favored by Hitler, Stalin, murderers, rapists, and thugs everywhere. I once thought our government was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and now I don't think it is even legitimate. If you can change my mind, I'll give you $100,000.
  20. Remarks by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman on Aaron Swartz's life and death.
  21. Did The Federal Prosecutors Treat Aaron Swartz Too Harshly?
    A commenter astutely asked, “[they ruthlessly prosecuted Swartz but] not a single Wall Street banking executive who lied to investors and secured a bailout for activities that have angered the entire US population has been prosecuted by the the US attorney. Funny, isn't it?”
  22. Prosecutors May Have Wanted Aaron Swartz In Jail To Justify Arresting Him In The First Place
  23. Rep. Issa Slams Prosecutors For How They Handled The Aaron Swartz Case
  24. Full text of Aaron Swartz's Guerilla Open Access Manifesto
  25. Aaron Swartz's Death Is A Tragedy — And There Are Some Questions That Need To Be Answered
  26. Aaron Swartz's Father Says His Son Was 'Killed By The Government'
  27. We the People: Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz
  28. April 3, 2016: A spiritual successor to Aaron Swartz is angering publishers all over again: Meet accused hacker and copyright infringer Alexandra Elbakyan.
    Excerpt: “Meet Alexandra Elbakyan, the developer of Sci-Hub, a Pirate Bay-like site for the science nerd. It's a portal that offers free and searchable access ‘to most publishers, especially well-known ones.’”
  29. Research Funding Has Become Prone to Bubble Formation
  30. The review of scientific studies in journals is subjective and quality is variable
  31. Pressure to 'publish or perish' may discourage innovative research
  32. Simple errors limit scientific scrutiny
    Excerpt: “ … more than half of the public datasets provided with scientific papers are incomplete, which prevents reproducibility tests and follow-up studies.”
  33. Scientists warned of costly impure chemicals
  34. ‘Friendly’ reviewers rate grant applications more highly: Swiss funding agency banned applicant-nominated referees after a 2016 study found evidence of bias. Those results are now being made public.
  35. Elsevier strikes its first national deal with large open-access element: Agreement with Norwegian consortium allows researchers to make the vast majority of their work free to read on publication in Elsevier journals.
    Comment: A step in the right direction!
  36. To meet the ‘Plan S’ open-access mandate, journals mull setting papers free at publication
  37. Scientists call on funders to make research freely available immediately
    Excerpt: “Scientific research usually takes months to be published by academic journals, and once it is, many of the papers can only be read by scientists from wealthy institutes that subscribe to the journals. Over the years, there have been various attempts to make research more widely available, but most papers remain behind paywalls …”
    Comment: In most cases, taxpayers paid for some or all of that research, yet can't read it without paying through the nose. This is like paying for your son or daughter to become a doctor, then finding the brat won't help you unless you fork over your credit card or insurance card. Nuts.
  38. June 5, 2019: Medical preprint server debuts
    Comment: medRxiv. Soon to play a role in combating a pandemic.
  39. ‘Broken access’ publishing corrodes quality: Funders should award competitive grants directly to journals to underwrite the costs of open access, urges Adriano Aguzzi.
  40. April 8, 2021: A guide to Plan S: the open-access initiative shaking up science publishing: The push to remove journal paywalls officially started this year. Here's how it works.
  41. August 10, 2021: What costs half a year's pay for African scholars? Open access
    Excerpt: “… we … found that the average article-processing charge was US$3,150.”
  42. August 25, 2022: US government to make all research it funds open access on publication: Policy will go into effect in 2026, apply to everything that gets federal money.
    Comment: Finally!
  43. August 30, 2022: The US has ruled all taxpayer-funded research must be free to read. What's the benefit of open access?
    Excerpt: “Even academics at well-funded universities can mostly only access journals their universities subscribe to—and no institution can afford to subscribe to everything published. Last year, estimates suggest some 2 million research articles were published. People outside a university—in a small company, a college, a GP practice, a newsroom, or citizen scientists—have to pay for access. … this lack of public access leads to ‘discrimination and structural inequalities… [that] prevent some communities from reaping the rewards of the scientific and technological advancements.’” (emphasis added)
    Comment: This stifles progress as research is bottled up, unavailable to most people. Why this obvious impediment persisted so long with so few screaming about its iniquity is a mystery, but kudos to President Biden for ending it. Too bad he didn't mandate that it should be implemented now, or ASAP, not years from now.
The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

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