Admit it: No protected area manager is going to pay to read your paper.

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Let’s be honest: Academia hates poor people. The status quo needs to change. Quickly.

Despite compiling a Literature Library of over 5,000 items we here at MARE have no institutional access to pay-walled journals or database. No access to Elsevier’s journals, nor Thomson Reuters’, nor Springer’s. None.

In fact, we tried to buy access to Marine Pollution Bulletin once. We were quoted USD $10,000 for just myself and John Davis to have access to the journal for one year. Yes, you read that correctly: $10k for 1 year for 2 people. That’s $5,000/person/year. Needless to say, we didn’t purchase a subscription. (Did I mention MARE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit? We are. That didn’t matter for the subscription costs).

Unlike those of you at universities, when I try to read anything beyond an abstract, I’m greeted with a per-article download fee. These usually range between $20 and $50 per article. Typically, each Literature Update I write contains about 40 pay-walled journal articles. Assuming each of those costs on average $35, it would cost me $1,400 to purchase all the articles I’m telling you all about each week. That’s over $70,000 a year!

So the question is: should I allocate over $70k for journal articles, or use that money to pay for actual conservation work (staff, operations, etc.)?

Better yet: why should I have to ask this question!? Should anyone have to choose between scientific research and staff? No. They shouldn’t. When people donate to a nonprofit like MARE, they expect the money to go to conservation. Not to download PDFs that may (or may not) help influence decision-making.

Assuming you have intuitional access to pay-walled journal articles and databases, your university is paying for it, which means you are helping to pay for that. With each grant you get at a university, a portion of that overhead funds those subscriptions. Wouldn’t you rather keep that money for actual conservation work? I know I would!

Follow the money

Where does the money spent on pay-walled journals go? Let’s look at Elsevier for this example. They publish all the ScienceDirect journals like Ocean & Coastal Management, Marine Policy, etc. It’s already common knowledge that as a peer-reviewer, you don’t get paid. So the money isn’t going to pay academics. The people writing the article have to pay to get it published, so the money is going away from the people doing the writing. The money goes to profit.

In 2015 alone, Elsevier brought in £2.070 billion in revenue. Let that sink in for a bit. Even with the British Pound doing as poorly as it is now, that’s still USD $2.7 billion! And with Elsevier’s profit margin of 37% for 2015, that’s a billion dollars in profit. 1 billion US dollars in profit. Let me say that one more time: a billion dollars going to Elsevier’s pockets instead of conservation. What is going on here!?

To put the icing on the cake, in July of this year, Thomson Reuters sold their “Intellectual Property & Science business to private equity funds affiliated with Onex Corporation (“Onex”) and Baring Private Equity Asia (“Baring Asia”) for $3.55 billion in cash.”. That sale includes Web of Science, a very popular academic database. Wouldn't it be nice if a university or a foundation were providing these services, so they could at least give that money back to conservation?

I could go on and on and on complaining about how funding that ought to be going to conservation is going to big international corporations. But that won’t change anything. Yes, I wish everyone was as angry as I was about the state of academic publishing. But they’re not. You’re not. Until universities and think-tanks refuse to pay for academic journal subscriptions, the problem will go on and on indefinitely.

Beams of light

Thankfully, though, there are some beams of light in this dark scenario. Some universities are mandating all author’s copies go in institutional repositories with no embargo periods. Some professors are making promises to only publish Open Access. The key thing to remember here is that you, the academic writer, have all the power in this scenario. Elsevier can’t make a billion dollars in profit if people aren’t paying to publish with them! The big journals need your content. They need your free peer-review. They have no business model without your slave labor. Stop feeding the monster. Don’t be a slave to the pay-walled journals.

Let’s say all of this talk about money going to big corporations instead of conservation isn’t resonating with you. Fair enough. Because the vast majority of the world isn’t paying to download journal articles, conservation research isn’t getting used where it’s needed most. One study found primary scientific literature informed only about 14% of information cited in MPA management plans, with inaccessibility of that research as the primary cause. Ironically, that same study would cost me $35.95 plus tax to download. Touché!

There’s plenty of other anecdotal information out there on the inaccessibility issue. Obviously, ‘inaccessible’ can mean many different things: is it cost prohibitive? Not in the reader’s native language? Bound up in a book on the other side of the planet? Lots of things make academic research inaccessible to managers. But let’s not make the cost one of them anymore.

Editor's note: This blog post is the first in a series on "making your marine science matter" — a recent talk MARE gave at the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC4). Future blogs will focus on knowing and writing for your intended audience, the key elements of a useful paper for conservation management practices, making effective and compelling visualizations, and plenty more! You may read the other blogs in this series by following the links below.


A big "thank you" to the IMCC4 plenary speakers: namely, Michelle LaRue, Jean Wiener, Max Liboiron, and Asha de Vos who all spoke wonderfully on the topic of inaccessibility of primary scientific research to the 99.9% of the world that isn't at a university in a developed country. Their speeches were quite moving, and I urge everyone to attend any talks you can by these folks.

[Seriously academia: don't go into a developing country, do research, and then move on. Share your research with the local community. And for heaven's sake, don't make them pay a day's, a week's, or a month's salary to download the PDF!]

Great piece, Nick! Sometime I wonder actually where the conservation money goes in the developing countries like us. You are a 'western' grant making funds, you fund 'top scientists' (the league of white old men, women too, sometime), they 'do research, and then move on.' Even the local acadmia do not get the chance to be involved with full capacity. Then the local community finds the results pay-walled!

Why thank you! As I'm sure you're aware, there is plenty of conservation research going on in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. What many academics don't seem to care or think about, is what they do with that research. It's infuriating to me to see a paper on say, 'how to better manage a local MPA in Indonesia' where it costs me $40 to read it. While I'm perfectly capable of paying for that (thanks only to my luck of being born in the US), the average income in Indonesia is roughly 1/10 that of the US.

If MARE (which has 3 whole staff members) had our budget cut down to 1/10 what it is now, there is no way we'd be using any funds for pay-walled research. There are far more important things that need attention!

Great points. Also worth noting that many academics put PDFs and/or copyright-free versions on our websites (or on ResearchGate,, etc.), and we're always happy to email a copy when asked.  Making an article open access costs a lot of money for the author (on the order of a couple of thousand dollars in some journals) and it's often not feasible for academics without large grants to pay for this themselves.  It would be nice if Universities and Colleges would keep an endowed fund for this kind of thing, to make their employees' research accessible - and I'm sure some institutions do this.  For those of us trying to get tenure, we're under an enormous amount of pressure to publish in the "right" journals - maybe this will change eventually, but for now, many of us do not have the luxury of boycotting them... but we're always happy to share our work, just ask!  

I definitely agree with you that - at this point in time - Open Access isn't necessarily an option for everyone. Unfortunately, so many review committees have this absurd antiquated notions that some journals are good while some are bad, despite the fact that Science and Nature among the top (if not the top) journals for retractions. No surprise that fancy journals attract fraud. Anyway, my point is, Open Access isn't (yet) the answer for everything, and I certainly appreciate institutional repositories and ResearchGate., though, I would not recommend. It's meant for researchers, not managers, and actively prevents managers (and people like myself) from joining.

Interesting that you mention emailing authors for copies. While there is no research on this topic, I'd love someone to take this up! I was curious about the average response rate for people reaching out to authors, so I asked several people on Twitter and other friends/colleagues around UW. Turns out the average response rate is only about 50%. That's terrible! But not surprising. I've emailed plenty of authors myself, and I'd say that 50% response rate is probably spot on. There's no excuse for not putting your paper in a public repository somewhere, especially if you're too busy/email-laden/whatever to respond to requests. And better yet, why on earth would anyone want more email!? The last thing I'd do is write this blog, and then tell people "Hey, you can pay $35 to read this. But if you want it for free, just email me." I've got plenty of other things to do, and I'm sure researchers do too! Don't waste time sending people copies, but that stuff online so people can self-serve. 

Case in point: my partner is a glaciologist. There's one paper that's seminal to his dissertation, but the UW library system can't get it. The author of the paper hasn't responded to any of his emails. The paper isn't online anywhere except in the journal, where it costs $45 to download. His lab group refuses to waste money on a "maybe this paper will be good, maybe it won't" gamble, and as such, that author won't be cited in any of their work. Which really sucks. Here they are, perhaps doing exactly the same work this other author did, but no one knows, because the paper is locked up behind a pay-wall.

Not that I'm saying all academics are bad about this! Gosh knows you and plenty of other people we work with are wonderful about putting their work online for free! But for those that need a friendly reminder to do better, now they have it. 

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