Surviving the Paywall Environment
Article by Sander Govaerts
Image by Ron Mader
The moment I heard about ScholarlyHub I knew I had a unique chance to participate in the kind of intellectual revolution I had been awaiting for the last eight years. I am currently a PhD candidate in history at the University of Amsterdam, disturbingly close to the moment when I need to submit a final thesis. While I never heard about open access until about two years ago, I have had more than my fair share of experience with publishers’ paywalls.
I remember that, as a BA student, and particularly as an MA student, I waged a constant battle to get access to the literature I needed for writing my papers. Most of my professors were kind enough to supply a copy of the academic articles or book chapters they used in class, but as soon as I tried to walk beyond these trodden paths, I saw myself confronted with all kinds of barriers. The university library provided a very helpful first aid kit, but the most interesting studies always seemed to be beyond my reach. The most common alternative was thus pathetically hoping that Google Books would allow me to view the pages I needed. In exceptional circumstances I just bought the book or article, but the expenses this entailed discouraged any attempts to use this possibility more often.
Now I am writing a PhD, which means that I have the university's financial backing, which I never had before. Still, I quickly discovered when I started four years ago that even as an academic researcher, many studies simply remain beyond my reach. Because I have had the chance to focus on research, I have actually become more aware than ever of the constraints everyone who tries to conduct decent academic research faces. Countless academic books that I would love to read are simply not to be found in any university library in the Netherlands. Buying them is rarely an option as most of them are not obtainable for prices below one hundred euros, and there are quite a few that only sell for double this sum. The result is thus simply that a great deal of scholarship, which might have been helpful to me, and whose authors I presume have put a lot of effort into, remain unread.
As a PhD candidate I am of course expected to start publishing myself. I did not put much thought into which journal I wanted to publish my first article. I was happy enough to find one that agreed to publish my exceptionally long piece of more than forty pages. I compensated by ignorance about the fact that most academic studies tend to be concise, with my enthusiasm about late medieval military service. It was only after the actual journal issue appeared that I suddenly understood the mechanisms behind the barriers I came to know so well: the digital copy I received was watermarked to ensure that I could not share it with impunity. I obviously understood that the publisher had to make some money out of this, so I went to their website to see how much I would have to pay to view the article I just published: the standard price of any online article was, and still is, eighteen euros, almost the price of a good academic paperback. I had no doubt that such a paywall would discourage almost anyone to read the article, so, after a helpful tip from a colleague, I made a draft version available. Making my next article accessible was easier, or so it seemed: the editor simply let me know that as an employee of a Dutch university my article would automatically be published open access. This happened just a few months ago, and I could not help but wonder how much Dutch universities paid to be granted this privilege.
For here we arrive at the heart of the matter: I entered academia because I love to do research and want to make the knowledge I produce available to others. As a beginning researcher, without even a PhD, I naturally do not have the options or bargaining leverage of a full member of the academic community. That does not mean, however, that I will just go with the current and publish studies that apparently serve little purpose except giving even more money to capitalist corporations. There are always other options, even for someone at the start of an academic career, and as initiatives such as ScholarlyHub gain momentum, many more will present themselves. The general expectation for instance is that I will publish my thesis as a monograph. Getting a thesis published is hardly an easy process, but all praiseworthy things take time and effort. So, if I ever publish a book, whether it is my thesis or something else, that is so expensive that I would not have bought it myself, I am not sure whether I would still be able to look myself in the mirror, for I have become the sort of person I always despised; the kind who betrays his own principles and loses part of his own identity in the process.