Panel discussion summary - Paywall: The Business of Scholarship

Updated: Mar 19


Listen to the Podcast or carrying on reading the below:


It's been nearly two weeks since I attended the screening of Paywall: The Business of Scholarship film on Wednesday 30th January 2019 at the British Library, so I thought I better jot down my thoughts sooner rather than later. The screening preceded a panel discussion with:

Big thanks to RLUK and Arcadia Fund for hosting this event, and the nibbles and drinkies after! The event was not heavily attended but there was an interesting mix of people nevertheless.


I took my mother, a retired private client solicitor, to the screening to give her better insight into what she has started to hear more and more about on BBC Radio 4 - open access (OA).


Lights, Camera, Action


Have you seen it yet? This film was first publicly shown on 5th September 2018 and has been screened all over the world. Of course, you can access it freely - it would be a bit hypocritical if you couldn't! Watch it here - Paywall: The Business of Scholarship.


Jason produced the film after undertaking 70 interviews over 18 months - originally an investigative piece turned into a documentary. Clearly a huge amount of work has gone to pull this film together, and Jason is very passionate about what he does.


Now I could spend my time reviewing this film but it's been over five months since it was first shown and there are plenty of great reviews out there you could read to save me reinventing the wheel:

What I will say is that I found many of the interviews really interesting and overall myself and my mother enjoyed the film (it was my second screening). There were parts though that I felt Elsevier took most of the flack for what is an industry wide issue - they're a commercial business at the end of the day so they want to make money and they clearly had a model that worked very well for them. Businesses are run by people and many of us know people or, like people on the panel even, have worked for Elsevier. I know some really good people who work at Elsevier so we should consider the human element here and not everyone is the 'devil' as I have often heard Elsevier referred as. I've seen, even back in 2007, how much Elsevier was having a hold on librarians and budgets. It was shocking and the knock on effect with other suppliers and publishers scrambling to keep a piece of the budget - though this did force them to rethink their offerings/strategies and what buying models they could bring to the table.


In situations like this, you need a movement to introduce change - that change is happening but we still have a long way to go to find the right solutions. And with predatory publishers on the prowl it just adds to the complexities but hopefully new collaborations like Projekt Deal and initiatives like Plan S will help to reduce or even eliminate these issues.


The Panel


So what is this blog post about? Well I thought it was worth summarizing the panel discussion:

  • Around a quarter of a century ago the publishing industry was affected by rising costs, reduced access and journals in crisis

  • Over the years the community (publishers, intermediates, libraries) has been working on improving access, new initiatives and technologies, digital repositories and collaborations/partnerships as well as experimenting with output to drive research forward - new academic start ups on the increase

  • In the mid 1990s many people were an advocate of OA without even realizing it. It certainly hasn't come without it's challenges - we have already come so far but still have a long way to go

  • Content quality can be good or bad through a subscription or an OA model

  • Predatory publishers are on the rise though we need to get away from predatory and non predatory as a polarized argument

  • New services can be fab but face their own challenges e.g. PLOS is great but submissions and article output are down

  • Real problems with the quality of science - scientists do not publish negative results so the community will keep making the same mistakes rather than learning from them - movement for Open Science with backing now from UKRI for example

  • The peer review process needs addressing - something is going wrong

  • Complexities of the systems we use - institutional systems and supplier systems are all different and can be so hard to configure and work with

  • Transparency of cost required - need to understand where the money is going

  • The statistics for Pay Per View (PPV) conversion rates - single download of article - is very small (Stuart, Royal Society)

  • If we made it easier for people to access content with smaller pay walls what would that mean? Easy transactions/process/flow, would more people pay? Is it worth their time to go searching for it? Economies of scale

  • Only allowing an author to share their article on their own website and not in a repository, is that really sharing it?

  • Need access for more immediate information to drive research forward - especially in third world countries - more collaboration would mean quicker global advancement

  • 150 million downloads on SciHub - is that really that much when Royal Society has 40 million from 10 journals for example?

  • SciHub/Wikipedia website was amazing but was taken down very quickly

  • We should be making things more discoverable - I personally commented here about how University Presses find it hard to partner with services and become part of directories/lists due to the fact they have smaller content offerings and so not seen as a priority to work with

  • Policy makers and funders didn't realize the problems with accessing content - especially when the research is state funded

  • Better management of OA required


I was surprised that the newly announced Projekt Deal didn't come up in the discussion as I would have been interested to hear the thoughts on the efforts publishers are making...hopefully this will help continue the momentum to what is actually going to be quite exciting times. I felt that even though some questions were addressed in the room, others were left for us to think further on. It was definitely worthwhile attending this event and I hope there will be another one soon.


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