Pay-Per-View Science for the Scholarly Poor is unacceptable: immoral, unethical and encourages bad science

I met a scientist today – I shall not reveal details. S/he was from a company, working abroad but visiting Cambridge. For technical reasons she was not able to access her company scientific information service and so was reliant on some syndicated PayPerView (PPV) system. This is what journals offer to those (most of the world) who don't have an institutional library subscription (see ). It's indicated on most journals by a shopping basket and a "BUY" button. For most of these you are then given a price and you can buy your papers. I did not realise viscerally till today how awful the system was.

BUY is a marketing lie.

You cannot buy the paper like you buy a book. You RENT the paper. You have this option for ONE day. And once only.

You cannot save the paper to disk. I don't know how universally true this is but I expect that there are Rights collectors who will provide software to prevent copying.

If you fail to read the paper completely in 1 day (or if your connection crashes or whatever) you have to BUY (sorry, RENT) the paper again.

You ARE allowed to PRINT it. And pay for the paper, and the electricity and the toner… And waste planetary resources.

So what PPV does is force scientists to PRINT papers which are designed for electronic use. Any clickable diagrams, and rotatable molecules are destroyed.

This scientist was spending their valuable time printing about 3 cm thick of paper as that was the only way they could read the papers. S/he told me that s/he now reads many fewer papers because of the hassle. That is encouraging bad science.

Why this absurdity? Mainly because the publisher assumes that the reader is a potential thief (their language – "stealing content"). So we have anti-theft measures for anyone outside the scientific community.

And what about the charges?

I found a journal today which charges 60 USD for 1 paper. How is this justified? I only know about OUP (charges at least 32 USD) who answered an FoI request with:

The pricing has been based  on  market  levels  (which  means,  for  example,  that  our  pricing  for  articles  from 
humanities  journals  is  generally  lower  than  that  for articles  from  scientific or medical 
journals)  and  also  takes  into  account  the  risk  that  too  low  pricing  could  undermine 

So the pricing is what the market will bear. Chemists can be tapped for more money than historians. OUP is a non-profit and it might be thought that they have an element of public service. Who are the people who have to use PPV? The scholarly poor. Individuals our countries outside rich academia. People who are personally concerned about disease, or climate change, or anything. People like Open Source Drug Discovery in India who worry more about curing TB than their h-index. People like Graham Steel who is a Patient Advocate for CJD in his spare time. You might think that a publisher considered these people. But no, the holy cow of profit runs everything.

(This is not a specific criticism of OUP – other publishers are almost certainly even worse. But they won't reply to me).

PayPerView is iniquitous. Not because the material isn't free – though we have to work on that. But because it degrades the reader, regarding them as a thief. Makes no concession to their need to read the literature (and usually assumes by default that anyone outside academia isn't worth bothering about). And sets a rate of pricing which must be one of the most inexcusable in the whole of materialist capitalism.

And, in case you had forgotten, the publishers DO NOT CREATE THE CONTENT. Scientists GIVE IT TO THE PUBLISHERS FOR FREE.

I've got myself quite angry now.

I might even have got some of you angry.

The whole scholarly publishing system is rotten, but PPV is one of its worst aspects.

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14 Responses to Pay-Per-View Science for the Scholarly Poor is unacceptable: immoral, unethical and encourages bad science

  1. Nick Barnes says:

    Welcome to my world.

  2. I was very surprised when I moved from academia to industry too, I also tend to read far fewer papers due to the excessive fees.

  3. Steven Bachrach says:


    Is pay-per-view truly inherently evil? Or is the evil in its current implementation?

    If we had more of an iTunes model, where you could store your electronic copy (perhaps even on more than one device) and where the charge per article was smaller - say $5 (or $2 or whatever - but not zero), and there was a more centralized source for purchasing articles, would that be OK?

    I don't see the evil in PPV handled in this manner. Now one can still argue about OA vs cost, but if we allow that there will be some cost, can't PPV be implemented in a way that is sensible?


    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Steve,
      I think it's possible to come to a pricing structure which would satisfy many/most people. (I personally am going to bang on about re-use, textmining, derivative works, etc. but I can accept there is a wider discussion).

      The evil arises from:
      * a universal and callous disregard for the reader.
      * a seriously substandard product - a PDF - whereas the full subscriber gets more
      * probably DRM'ed which is an insult
      * the absurd timespan which is also an insult. Why not a week? or a year. It's almost as if the publisher wasn't interested in people reading the material, just paying for it.
      * no concession for repeated purchases (sorry, rentals)

  4. Bill Moran says:

    Peter, I come pre-angered for your convenience.

    I belong to a small list-serv group that discusses and experiments with sound frequencies transmitted over a series of plasma tube "antennas" for the purpose of affecting human pathogens without the usual side effects (and dangers) of introducing chemical insults to the body.

    We have been so cobbled over the past few years, by the creeping crud of PPV on medical and scientific papers that really serve us only to confirm or deny direction...seldom for anything resembling patentable ideas, that we've been reduced to feeling like vultures and "hinting" back and forth to each other, "if somebody could just buy such and such literature" etc., that the group has gotten more and more distant and lost interest because of the rising cost of information. (of all things!)

    Who would have thought that the internet would make it MORE expensive to get previously free data??

    This is the view from the basement dwelling home experimenter, and if you think that world shaking innovation will ever spring from the data-denied scholarly poor again, I'd love to know how.

  5. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - The Scholarly Poor: The Climate Code Foundation « petermr's blog

  6. John Smith says:

    Today I hit a link which took me to the British Medical Journal paywall, where I was told that I could read the article in question (for 1 day only) for $30. Looking around the site, I find that I can subscribe for a year at a cost of $186. This would give me access to not just the current articles, but the entire archive "going back to 1840". So, 50 issues per year, 10 articles per issue - less than $3 per article if you buy them all, TEN TIMES as much if you buy one only.

    That's not counting the ability to access for a year rather than a day, or the search functionality, or the archive. I'd say that the single-article subscriber is being badly screwed.

    I'm a science camp-follower. Since I'm not a specialist, it wouldn't be worth my while subscribing to any particular journal. I'm interested in the $3 per article, though. I'd be happy to pay $300 to get access to a maximum of 100 articles in a year from across the whole range of learned journals. I'm not going to pay $30 for an article, nor am I going to subscribe to any individual journal, so for the publishers, it'd be found money. The only cost to them is the price of a download - pennies. I wonder why they don't?

  7. Todds says:

    Publishers exploit their cash-cows, they've done the same with artist for many years. I don't think it is going to last for long, because they are becoming too irrelevant, and it just takes the naiive scientific community to stop sending their best work to these journals in order to change things. I think then they will realize that it was the work not the publisher that readers will follow. They must know their days are numbered and going to be even fewer with the contemptible way they are treating scientists and knowledge seekers. They know very well there is a better way, and it would have been much easier (and maybe even more profitable) if with the drastic reduction in costs for printing electronic media, they would have worked with grant agencies and governments to make new laws that allow their (reasonable) funding to publish release scientific studies for free. This not some pop artist content to make millions from, this is our scientific heritage and culture we're talking about! Unfortunately, the "business-model/consumer-last" mentality of publishers (as well as with banks, hospitals and a lot of other industries) are ruining America. The cost to society is way too great for these greedy fools to be in the reins. It is utterly disgusting. Scientists need to create their own pirate bay to redistribute their own property, since at this point I think civil disobedience is in order and entirely justified.

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