Tear Down That Paywall: A Look at a Big Funder Push for Open Research

Sky-high paywalls, inflated prestige, and cumbersome review are frequent complaints about research publications. Three funders are bankrolling a competing, open-access journal, and just extended support with $36 million.

The battle for open-access science publication rages on (quietly, of course) with a growing movement to drop prohibitive paywalls and allow research to be distributed freely. It’s an ongoing source of frustration among researchers, students and funders, with some describing the status quo as a “theater of the absurd” and “a ridiculous transaction.”

The issue is that for the majority of research publications, expenses are paid—and then some—by steep subscription rates that can climb into the thousands for some individual journals. This makes most published research—the sharing of which is critical for building on previous work—inaccessible to many, especially outside of universities in wealthy nations.

An open science movement to change this has been building momentum since around the early 2000s, and both public and private funders have played a big role in pushing for change. 


One such philanthropic gauntlet thrown was the creation of eLife in 2012—funded with $26 million from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society—to provide an open access, collaborative alternative to the most prestigious publications. 

In its first four years, the journal hasn’t quite revolutionized the way research is shared, but it has made headway with more than 1,800 papers published, and a growing reputation as a leading journal that plays by a different set of rules. It's still financially dependent on philanthropy; eLife just picked up funding equivalent to $36 million from the three original backers to carry it through 2022.

Of course, eLife is not the first nor the only open access research publication. That number has grown along with the movement, and around 9,000 are now listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals. But the culture of academia is slow to change, and even if researchers would prefer their work to be spread and cited more openly, most also really want to get an article published in such prestige journals as Nature, Science, and Cell, which run on paywalls.

The launch of eLife was meant to shake things up, in terms of making things more open, and to improve a few other things about the leading model.

One way eLife is different is that it’s intended to be open access, but simultaneously elite, accepting only work of the highest standards, so as to elbow its way into the upper echelon of publications. Open journals tend to have higher acceptance rates, while paywalled prestige journals like Nature and Science will accept fewer than 10 percent of submissions.

Another distinguishing trait is that eLife employs working scientists instead of professional editors, and has a collaborative peer review process that's intended to be more even-handed, faster and less agonizing than the usual process. Many researchers have come to embraceeLife’s approach, and it’s gaining devotees in the community, with submissions on the rise.

It’s unlikely that the entire industry will follow the exact path of eLife—after all, while the publishing model is not as expensive as the dominant journals make it, it does cost money. Without philanthropic support, open journals typically cover costs by charging researchers or, by extension, their funders. eLife is expecting to charge researchers for submissions at some point, but it likely won’t cover costs of their unique approach. 

In a lot of ways, journal publishing is finding its way similarly to journalism, with philanthropy playing an emerging role and raising the bar, but not serving as a cure-all. 

But it might just change the way people think about what a “good” journal is, showing that it doesn’t have to equate to expensive paywalls. That there are other ways to foster that luster, besides clamping down. 

Related:How This News Site is Testing the Long-Term Viability of Philanthropy-Fueled Media