paywalls are stupid, part infinity

Earlier this morning, I saw a story at Daily Kos that really upset me. It's the sort of thing that I would hope transcends political ideology, and I thought that if I submitted it to Reddit, maybe it would eventually attract enough attention to make some kind of difference.

I didn't want to link to Kos, though, because it's a liberal website, and that would probably turn off some people the same way a conservative website would turn me off. Like I said, though, the article referenced in the post wasn't ideologically Left or Right, so I went to the source … and discovered that the article I wanted to link was behind a stupid goddamn paywall.

Here's what was excerpted at Kos:

U.S. researchers will soon abandon their search for the most coveted particle in high-energy physics because of a lack of funding.

Researchers working at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, had wanted to run their 25-year-old atom smasher, the Tevatron, through 2014 in hopes of spotting the so-called Higgs boson before their European counterparts could discover it with their newer, more powerful atom smasher. But officials at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which funds Fermilab, informed lab officials this week that DOE cannot come up with the extra $35 million per year to keep the Tevatron going beyond September.

“Unfortunately, the current budgetary climate is very challenging and additional funding has not been identified. Therefore, … operation of the Tevatron will end in [fiscal year 2011], as originally scheduled,” wrote William Brinkman, head of DOE's Office of Science, in a letter to Melvyn Shochet, chair of DOE's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) and a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

Here's what you see when you try to read more, or maybe send the link to your conservative parents who wouldn't read Kos if it contained the secrets of Life, the Universe, and Everything:

The content you requested requires a Subscription to this site or Science Pay per Article purchase. If you already have a user name and password, please sign in below.

Headdesk. Headdesk. Headdesk.

Edited to add: Joe D found a link to a similar (if not identical) story at US News and World Report that isn't behind a paywall. Paul linked to Nature, via NPR.

Also, I wanted to clarify that I'm not attacking AAAS, because I'm sure someone there has what they believe is a good reason for setting things up this way; I wrote this post in frustration to illustrate why I really hate paywalls.

Also, also, I agree that the research being completed, regardless of national location, is better than the research never being completed … but as an American, I want my country to dig itself out of the fucking intellectual basement and catch up to the rest of the world. Budget cuts like this infuriate me, especially when we have seemingly infinite money to wage endless, unwinnable wars.

44 thoughts on “paywalls are stupid, part infinity”

  1. Yay for self-selecting only the readers who already care enough to pay and therefore limiting one’s scope of outreach!
    Then again,maybe they have to charge for articles because of funding cuts to all areas of the sciences.:-P

  2. Paywalls on news websites have to be the most aggravating business model out there. It speaks very much to having a lack of respect for the userbase and simply caring more about short term gain rather than–
    (To read the rest of this comment please Subscribe to Chris Hanel Premium.)

  3. They have to make their money somehow! I mean, what would you think if everyone could read YOUR articles for free? …er….nevermind.
    You’d think something with this much scientific, political, and, indeed, human interest would be something they’d want to cry to the earth and heavens and all between. Unfortunately, policy overides principle far too often.

  4. I’m torn on this one.
    On one hand, dude, what a dick! Anyone not tied to the field who wants to learn more loses out.
    On the other, I feel like paywalls are somewhat understandable since the publisher did have to pay the author for the article. (Note: this is a pro-pay-the-author comment, not a pro-publisher-money-grub comment)

  5. Most Universities and Libraries have subscriptions to Science, but individual subscriptions are prohibitively expensive for most people. It’s unfortunate, “we scientists” wish and wish that the public could become more science literate, but most people can’t access original research, and don’t get me started on science reporting…
    More excerpt: (the article isn’t very long)
    High-Energy Physics
    1. Adrian Cho
    “In August, Fermilab’s scientific advisory panel recommended that lab officials keep running the Tevatron through 2014 even if they didn’t get another dime to do so. That advice didn’t sit so well with Oddone, who announced a month later that he could squeeze $15 million from the lab’s $410 million annual budget but needed DOE to provide $35 million more. In October, a HEPAP subpanel approved Oddone’s plan but said the Tevatron should be shuttered if DOE came up empty-handed.
    Many physicists believe that the hunt for the Higgs, the theoretical key to explaining how all particles obtain mass, is the most important challenge in the field. They argue that the Tevatron’s lower-energy and cleaner collisions could help Fermilab beat CERN in the race to uncover the Higgs if its mass falls in the range indicated indirectly by measurements on other particles—between 121 and 144 times the mass of a proton. Because the Tevatron collides protons into antiprotons, it could also probe how a new particle interacts with, or “couples” to, certain other particles in order to prove whether it’s really the Higgs. The LHC cannot probe those connections as easily because it collides protons with protons.
    “I think we presented a very good science case for continuing to run, but the fiscal realities just don’t allow us to go forward,” says Rob Roser, a physicist at Fermilab and co-spokesperson for the 600 researchers working with the CDF particle detector, one of two fed by the Tevatron. But DOE gave scientists a fair hearing, he adds: “They have to make very difficult decisions based on the realities. I can’t fault them for that.””

  6. I’ll play devil’s advocate on this one, because Science (the journal/magazine) isn’t necessarily for general public consumption. Its the main journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As such it contains highly technical research articles, but the AAAS is also a lobby and contains less technical articles on issues relevant to its audience, that is mostly American research scientists. We pay to be members of the society and getting the magazine is one of the perks.
    However public outreach is very important (the AAAS has a lot of public outreach going on) there may be some merit to dedicating resources to provide access to non-technical summaries (aside from the already available abstracts) and perhaps the freeing of the non-technical journal components of Science or again at least providing something to the general public about the content.
    Disclosure: I am a member of AAAS.
    However I agree pay walls are quite lame. Free the information!

  7. Are you on a university campus or in an office with a reason to have a subscription to Science? Such places usually have a sitewide subscription for their network.

  8. Man, I don’t want to read that article, I will just wait for the movie version.
    [/american attitude]
    Seriously though, I can see why a company/magazine/newspaper would think pay-walls are such a good idea, but at the same time, with so many resources on the net that are free…. Its a business model that has like zero longevity.

  9. I would put forward that Fermilab has had an excellent track record in finding new particles and the data processing for its experiments are already available. The LHC is such a large collection of data it isn’t clear how readily capable they are of processing it all let alone finding meaningful data patterns. While the Higgs is on their to do list it isn’t the only thing the LHC is meant to address. Fermilab has already produced results modifying the expected energy bounds for the Higgs so it can be an excellent supplementary tool to provide researches data on where to look in the LHC data feeds for the potential particle.

  10. I would like to second Csimokat and ask that you cut AAAS a little slack here, Wil (undisclaimer: I am not an AAAS member). As a nonprofit org they lack access to certain revenue streams available to other corporations. They rely on member dues, subscriptions, and a very limited amount of print advertising to provide revenue. I happen to think their per-article costs on line are decent. This one’s really not worth the effort, though, you summarized the entire article well enough.

  11. The simple fact is, that we won’t really know which collider would be best for finding the Higgs until AFTER we’ve already found it. Each has different strengths and weaknesses.

  12. If there is a paywall involved I won’t link to a site, I won’t link to an excerpt of an article on a free site if the excerpt doesn’t have much else to say other than a ‘You should read this’ sort of comment. I also won’t go searching for a work around or set up a proxy to watch geocoded video’s I simply make comment to the effect that geocoding makes baby chuthlu cry. I could easily get at the article/video using all sorts of grey/black sorts of methodology, but unless I really want access to it (I mean REALLY want it) its rarely ever actually worth the time hunting it down, and nor would anyone else I know.

  13. I did! And just as I was going to send you the $500 you said you needed for your “Cabbage Revitalization Project,” plus another $500 because I think my wife would really enjoy your comments, the weirdest thing happened–
    (To read the rest of this comment please Subscribe to Alex Pope Premium.)

  14. I tried to view it. $15.00 for 24 hours of access is not a reasonable price (yes, that’s really the price I was quoted). I understand the difficulties trying to run a scientific non-profit. However, if their goal is truly to promote science and expand the public knowledge…I think you can see my point.

  15. I spent 15 years of my life in the news industry, including writing and content production. While NEWS/information may be free – the writing, reporting and processing that go into providing news to the consumer is NOT FREE. No matter where on the web you are, someone – an actual breathing person – wrote or produced what you are consuming. They deserve to be compensated for their work.
    I don’t think the current state of pay-walls is the best solution, but in most cases, online advertising is just not enough to pay the bills. So they are doing the best they can. Giving you a teaser to get you interested, giving you the basic info, and hopefully turning you into a subscriber or at least selling the story.
    Sounds familiar to the providing free content, observations and exclusive audio on this site to promote the purchase and sale of your fine books. I don’t expect your books to be free just because they (can be) are digital; and I surely don’t expect quality reporting and writing to be free on the internet as well. When it is free, its awesome. But if its something I like, I will pony up, and support the creator.

  16. I have to agree with Csimokat, LHC may not be able to do it “better.”
    Besides a little scientific competition can sometimes bring some big results. Remember the whole atom bomb deal? Er…
    Seriously, there are many less explosive examples of competition working for scientific discovery.

  17. I wonder how much they would need. Maybe they could Kickstart it? Or since it’s not really a “start” but a “finish” some similar money pledging/raising internety deal could get it back on the go.

  18. I agree that paywalls suck. Especially paywalls for scientific journals that supposedly aren’t trying to make gobs of money in the first place.
    Personally, I don’t care if the Higgs Boson is discovered in the USA or anywhere else. I just want it discovered (or disproved). I think that if the entire world were to get out of this “us versus them” mentality then maybe we wouldn’t spend so much money on pointless and unwinnable wars (and, really, aren’t they all?) If the chance for the new collider to discover the Higgs Boson dwarfs the chance for the old collider to discover it, then we should put the planet’s resources into the new one and use the savings on the old one to pursue better goals.
    Sadly, the cut budget is unlikely to be used for something more noble.

  19. Bless you a million times over, but unfortunately, science funding has become very partisan, which is why Daily Kos is covering it and Fox News isn’t (except to make fun of it). Under Bush, things were shrinking slightly. But now, because Obama has made science spending a priority, it seems like the republicans want to axe it completely. In fact, the newly elected republicans have vowed to eliminate all non-defense research (including NSF and NIH). And, unfortunately, the continuing resolution to keep defense spending passed last year eliminated all earmark funding, much of which was also research. (Believe it or not, a lot of defense research is unrelated to weapons.) Basically, most republicans and some democrats view scientific research as a waste of government resources. It’s pretty pathetic.

  20. By the way, I do have access to the paywalled article. Some details I didn’t see in the other articles.
    “Pier Oddone, director of Fermilab, had stressed that the lab could not forsake future experiments to keep the Tevatron going. “Given the absence of additional funding, it’s the right decision,” Oddone says.”
    “That advice didn’t sit so well with Oddone, who announced a month later that he could squeeze $15 million from the lab’s $410 million annual budget but needed DOE to provide $35 million more.”
    Fermilab gets $410 million to direct toward research as they see fit. They have projects that they deem more important than the Tevatron. If their budget could be increased by $35M, they would be willing to cut $15M from other projects to keep the Tevatron active.
    I’m not ever certain that their budget was cut. It is likely that they have a long list of projects that would have priority over the Tevatron (especially since CERN is doing similar research). If they got the extra $35M, there is the possiblity that they would direct that money into other projects again next year and ask for more money again to keep the Tevatron running. This may be a strategy to increase funding.
    They could keep the Tevatron running if they wanted, but I have to trust the scientists to do the research they feel is most important.

  21. That’s the online version of the paper journal, Science. While paywalls do, in fact, suck, they probably wouldn’t get many subscriptions. Sometimes you can find that content in Google cache though. With a little creativity I was able to find:
    which might be the free summary. The scientific journals are getting pretty agressive about this because most of them are getting pretty good about allowing free access to anything over six months old. If you really wanted to send it to your parents, you might be able to download the pdf by logging on from your local library though–a lot of them have online access to such things (especially Science and Nature as both journals have broad appeal as well as published papers.)

  22. The Tevatron can be used for other physics research than the Higgs discovery, some of which can’t be duplicated easily at the LHC. In particular, I was part of a proposal for an experimental program of fixed-target neutrino physics that could only be done using the Tevatron. Everyone agreed that the physic research we proposed had merit, but it didn’t matter; the Tevatron was going to be shut down, and that was that.

  23. The ability to duplicate effort is a necessity: the scientific method *requires* results to be reproduceable in order to be confirmed. You can’t do science with one lab.

  24. I’ve been reading this blog for about a year and have not felt compelled to comment until this post. The paywall issue for academic journals goes beyond the general public being able to access information such as the article referenced here. Sure, *if* your university has a subscription, you may access the article. Unfortunately, many universities are experiencing budget cuts and the subscriptions to journals is one of the first things to go. This creates an atmosphere in which people who really want to learn and build on current knowledge cannot. Fine, I understand this well enough. It sucks, but, as one commenter said before me, the creators of the product should be compensated.
    This is where it begins to be a problem for me. The creators likely do not get compensated. Journals count on the fact that academics and scientists are desperate to have their papers published. As an anthropologist, if I get my research written and accepted for publication, I do not get compensated. I likely will have to pay to get anything more than a PDF copy of my own article that has been published in the journal. For instance, I am about to complete my dissertation and am required to upload the finished PDF to a dissertation clearing house that handles its distribution. If I want my dissertation to be made available to the public for free, I am required to pay a fee of about $90. If I do not want to pay, anyone needing or wanting my paper will be required to pay a fee (I think it is usually about $25. If I do the second option, I do receive 5%, but only if my article is requested often enough to generate $25 in 5 years. If not, I do not receive anything.
    My understanding of this process is that the academic/scientist/researcher works their butt off, writes something meaningful that will benefit other academics/scientists/researchers (and even the general public), and that information is held for ransom. It sucks. More than just a simple paywall kind of suck, too.

  25. I saw an article in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago about this. It’s a big blow for Fermilab and for Chicago/Illinois pride in general. Fermilab has a fantastic track record and the money should be made available.
    (access Trib article here through
    I too hit the pay wall from the journal–and as a freelance writer, I hate paywalls. Having once been in academic and biz-to-biz publishing, I know that there are serious reasons the journals don’t take adverts–but this is the 2000s. There must be a way to support free electronic dissemination of information without being accused of advertiser bias.
    Perhaps the journals could run ads that appeal to grad students and writers: coffee, energy drinks, soda, take-out pizza, child care, etc. No conflict of interest and free articles for everyone! Also, really, they ought to drop paper publishing.

  26. Well Wil,
    I work at one of the few original Cyclotrons in the country. We almost got shut down a few months ago because….. YOU GUESSED IT…. funding. THe government/state/officials who rub elbows with them didnt think it was worth the investment to keep a 30 year old cyclotron going.
    We have one of the most power beams in the country, treat cancer with proton therapy (until recently wasnt NEW thing), and do amazing science that studies new matter, materials, etc.
    We test for NASA because we have one of the few beams that can put out the power we do with such varied control for tests needed on materials.
    But some bean counter almost shut it down….its still running thank goodness… and new science is being done…some that directly affect materials used in old and new items for SPACE and beyond.

  27. I suspect that this isn’t about advertiser bias – I Science and Nature (and many other journals) do, in fact, accept advertising, and have for as long as I can remember. Within the last few years, I’ve seen more and more ads in the table of contents email alerts, not just on the website or in the print journal.
    Professional scientist frustration with paywalls (and other limitations) from journals drove the establishment of the Public Library of Science – a series of open access journals. In the years since PLoS started up, I’ve seen journals like Science offer much more in the way of immediate public access to news stories (like this one) as well as primary research papers. Clearly, though, not enough!

  28. I don’t like doom scenarios. So I’m trying to come up with a scenario that does not result in the decline of American science. The only light I see is that I also cannot see the US decaying into a religious state.
    The Bush administration left such a terrible mess, ending with an economic crisis that whoever was to follow him could not win against. Because I cannot see how a group of humans can be smart and influential enough to time this just so (a nice plot for a book or movie but no more), the disasters caused or accelerated by the Bush administration happen fall in the favor of (neo-)conservatives by chance.
    Here in Europe, things move relatively stable but slowish. Through history we have had terrible, grand-scale wars (and the worst epidemic known to mankind, as good as decimating the population) and the continent survived. This is not particularly a result of the people but of climate and resource conditions. You might focus on short periods as evidence of the contrary but looking over the centuries, or millennia, there has been steady growth. Even the long dark anti-science anti-freedom religion-dominated period of 500AD to 1500AD was eventually overwon.
    Asia might very well be the next mover and shaker. Not forever and not right now but they are good for a few centuries starting in the latter half of this century.
    I see no exit to that. Despite the best efforts of the Founding Fathers, their is an undercurrent of the kind of religion the pilgrims fled from. Only darker. For the nerds here: I’m talking Warhammer 40,000 dark. But I still don’t see that happening. And I hope it won’t.

  29. The thing about paywalls is this. Someone has to produce the content, and somehow they have to get paid. Blogs such as this one are a valuable public service, something enjoyed by many, but done out of the goodness of your heart. For income, you’re doing other things.
    Professional journalists, scholars, science writers, and so on are actually doing the jobs they get paid for when they write, and if that material is posted for free, how can they pay their bills?
    Paywalls suck, when you’re looking for free information; but as a commerce model, I can’t think of another viable alternative.

  30. I have to respectfully disagree. DoE spends $35M to potentially have that accelerator catch Higgs before tiny little singularities destroy all of Eur…oh wait, that’s a silly book…before another such device with a (as I understand it) higher liklihood of such a find catches the particle? To me that sounds akin to throwing good money after bad. I would much prefer the $35M go towards development of more efficient solar arrays, study of improved hydro-electric plants or some other such applied effort. Seems like a higher RoI.
    If, however, the money is just swept up in budget cuts that’s a different matter…unless, of course, it results in sparing cuts to NIH (or any other portion of the HHS/CDC hierarchy).
    As for paywalls…well, like several others that have posted before me, I understand the need. Given enough time, most of the quality articles will reach a free distribution source. Alternatively, they will be distilled (was going to say “horribly mis-interpreted” but thought I’d be optimistic) by mainstream journalists and reach us via another medium. If nothing else, this is a backhanded encouragement to visit the library…

  31. As someone who works for another society publisher, this is a really tough problem. No publisher is making wads of money, I assure you. Publishing/journalism is one of the lowest paid areas that requires degree-level education and most of my colleagues have a minimum of a PhD in their specialism. There are two journal publishing models: either we pay authors for their content and then charge people to read that content, or authors pay us to publish their content and we make it freely available. Either way, we have overheads including editors, peer review and production costs. Even big-name journals like Science and Nature carry relatively little advertising, compared with most magazines, and with magazines closing left and right due to falling ad revenue…
    Also, most stories in Science and Nature get picked up by dozens of news outlets elsewhere, so the information does get out. This story, for instance, can be found here – – in addition to all the other links posted. And, as other commenters mention, most universities and libraries subscribe to all the big journals so members of the public can, for the most part, access the original papers if they want to.

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