Why MarXiv Matters: How financial barriers to research impair ocean conservation

Publish your work behind a paywall? Put up a preprint, or just bury it in the ground.

We're not joking. Free access to research really, really matters in ocean conservation. This is why:

1. Freely-available papers are cited more and read more.

Across all disciplines, papers available for free with a preprint (also known as "Green OA") are cited 30% more than the world average.

Freely-available papers (including all kinds of Open Access: gold, green, etc.) are cited 18% more on average. Put another way, pay-walled papers are cited 10% less than what would be expected. 

If you need even more evidence: We analyzed click-through rates of over 800 papers included in the OpenChannels Literature Update newsletter over the spam of about six months. Freely-available papers were clicked 1.8 times more on average than pay-walled papers, indicating that even the abstracts of pay-walled papers were read about half as much as freely-available papers.

Further analysis of user behavior of the OpenChannels website shows that freely-available papers are read 70% more than pay-walled papers. While nearly all users access the full-text of freely-available papers, only about half tried to access the full-text of pay-walled papers. Thus, we have a situation where abstracts of pay-walled papers are read roughly half as much as free papers, which is further compounded by the fact that only about half of those users try to access the full text of that pay-walled research. In other words, only about 25% of the OpenChannels audience are reading pay-walled papers, while about 95% are reading freely-available research.

2. Pay-walled research is not used for ocean resource management.

According to a recent study, only about 14% of the information in MPA (marine protected area) management plans is informed by primary scientific literature. The cost of accessing such research made it inaccessible to managers and policymakers.

3. Most governments and government-agencies do not have subscriptions to academic journals, either.

The MarXiv Team was curious which journals our ocean-resource policymakers in US state governments had access to. We surveyed a number of state government agencies working on marine planning, aquaculture, and similar issues — not a single one we contacted could download a PDF of any of the top subscription ocean conservation journals* from their office for free. If US state governments cannot afford journal subscriptions, we strongly doubt local governments in other countries are subscribing, either.

*The top 10 journals by count of articles in the OpenChannels Literature Library as of August 2017 were used to create this list. Those journals are: PLOS ONE, Marine Policy, ICES Journal of Marine Science, Ocean and Coastal Management, PNAS, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Fisheries Research, Biological Conservation, Ecological Indicators, and Frontiers in Marine Science. The journals PLOS ONE and Frontiers in Marine Science are entirely Open Access, thus they are not counted as "subscription."

4. Subscriptions to pay-walled journals cost a lot of money.

Subscriptions to pay-walled academic journals are quite pricey. OCTO (which brings you MarXiv) tried to get a subscription to Marine Pollution Bulletin once, and just for two employees to access the journal, it would cost US $10,000 per year. 

Ocean conservation is dominated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), also known as civil society organizations. Many of these NGOs are nonprofit entities (like OCTO). Simply speaking, this means that the bulk of the people doing ocean conservation are not in the money-making business. $10,000 per year for a single journal subscription is often far too expensive for nonprofits to afford.

Universities can barely afford these subscriptions, either. In 2009, Tier 1 universities paid on average $1.2 million a year to Elsevier alone.

5. Emailing the author for a free copy is not a solution.

The MarXiv Team ran a survey with the readers of our OpenChannels Literature Update newsletter in March 2017. Of the respondents who had emailed an author for the full-text of a pay-walled paper before, half reported that that they receive the requested paper 50% of the time or less.

Let us also keep in mind that emailing the corresponding author for the full-text assumes several things:

  1. The author is still alive
  2. The email address for the author is correct
  3. The email request reaches the author (the email request does not end up in a spam/junk-mail folder)
  4. Both the author and requester are able to converse in writing in the same language (both parties can read and write English)
  5. The author replies to the request in a timely fashion

On top of all those assumptions, the average "excellent" review paper is downloaded 1,200 times in just the first year of release (~500 times for "other" papers). Do you really want 1,200 emails asking for a copy of your paper? More importantly, are you currently getting hundreds of emails asking for your pay-walled paper? Because if you're not, than you're clearly missing out on a large segment of potential readers.