Should scientific studies be available for free?

Plan S is starting to take hold, but the cost is merely shifting even more to the researchers.

Should scientific studies be available for free?
Credit: yurolaitsalbert / Adobe Stock
  • Launched in 2018, cOAlition S is trying to make all of the world's state-backed scientific papers open-access.
  • Prestigious publishers like Springer Nature and Elsevier have now adopted a Plan S option for researchers.
  • While more studies will be available to read for free, some of the expense is being passed back to authors, which could limit research in the future.

In 2018 cOAlition S launched an ambitious program: to make all of the world's state-backed scientific papers open-access. Their agenda, Plan S—the S stands for "shock"—is backed by over a dozen European research agencies and funders.

While the group has fallen short of achieving their stated agenda by 2021, they're certainly making strides. Just this week, 160 Elsevier journals, including renowned publications by Cell Press, are registered as "Plan S aligned Transformative Journals." This could be a good move by Elsevier, which has been severely criticized in the past for price gouging practices—although critics cite increased researcher fees as a cause for alarm.

Unlike the 10-year-old Sci-Hub, which houses over 85 million research papers and regularly changes URLs to avoid the legal ramifications of providing access to paywalled studies, cOAlition S is changing the journal system from within. Their 10 principles call for greater autonomy for researchers conducting scientific studies and having publication fees covered by universities, not researchers. The latter could prove pivotal, as publication budgets are often no match for journal fees.

In just three years, cOAlition S has gained the support of the World Health Organization, the European Commission, and research institutions and agencies in China, Sweden, France, Jordan, and the United States, including the Gates Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. While many journals initially opposed this agenda, a few have come around. Bureaucratic red tape and inflated prices have hamstrung science for decades. Plan S is not a perfect solution, but it's the closest we've seen.

Science's associate news editor Jeffrey Brainard breaks down how open access works for authors. Publishing studies is an essential part of a researcher's career, bringing with it the potential for career advancement, tenure, peer respect, and, occasionally, popular renown. But it comes at a cost.

Golden open access is one model used by journals such as The Lancet Golden Health, which charges researchers up to $5,000 to make their studies open access. Nature publications now clock in at up to $11,600 and Cell charges $9,900, though the median fee for journals is $2,600.

Pay-to-play doesn't only exist in music. The more respect a journal carries, the higher the fee.

When Springer Nature, publisher of the reputable Nature journals, announced it was adopting a Plan S option last month, the editorial team announced the $11,600 fee was mandatory for anyone requesting their articles be made open-access, regardless of their financial status. These journals are notoriously expensive: submitting an article for consideration costs roughly $2,700 with no guarantee of publication. One journal, Nature Physics, rejects 90 percent of submissions.

cOAlition S executive director Johan Rooryck expressed happiness that Springer Nature is now offering an open-access model but stated "that doesn't mean we have signed a blank check and are willing to pay any price for the articles appearing in those journals."

Springer Nature has also adopted a model more in alignment with Spotify: universities and research institutions pay a single fee to publish their authors. Some publishers offer a hybrid approach: some articles are free while others live behind a paywall. There are also embargo models, where authors can offer their papers to the public free of charge after a six-month or year-long waiting period.

Chart: Science

The cost to publish remains prohibitive for some researchers, with certain journal prices for one article exceeding annual budgets. This has forced many researchers to confront an existential question: publish behind a paywall and wither in obscurity, or pay up and hope enough people read (and cite) your work.

While inflated journal prices have plagued the scientific community, Brainard notes that a purely open-access model could place even more of a burden on researchers.

"A complete shift to open access could lead publishers to boost publishing fees even further, to try to make up for lost subscription revenues[...] Although just over 30% of all papers published in 2019 were paid open access, subscriptions still accounted for more than 90% of publishers' revenues that year."

cOAlition S is advocating for increased transparency to push back on price gouging. Just as researchers must disclose funding and conflicts of interest, "Plan S requires publishers to disclose to funders the basis for their prices, including the cost of services such as proofreading, copy editing, and organizing peer review."

Although Brainard briefly mentions an increase in the number of non-researchers and institutions—laypeople—reading open-access journals, this topic is relevant to this conversation. America is suffering from a longstanding dearth of public science information, evidenced in the anti-vax fervor that's growing in volume (if not in numbers) since the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Access to scientific studies won't solve all of our woes. But lack of transparency is a major reason why so many citizens have grown suspicious of pharmaceutical companies and public health agencies. An ability to read studies without having to pay exorbitant prices (to the layperson) would be an important step in public health and science education.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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