Should readers get a refund when they pay to access seriously flawed papers?

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr
Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr

Time for another installment of Ask Retraction Watch:

Let’s say I’m collecting relevant papers to write a review, or preparing a project, and I have rather limited time. I find a few interesting papers, bump into some paywalls, ask the authors for the .pdf without any response, and finally I decide to pay, say, $20 USD each for 8 papers. However, upon reading these papers I notice that two or three of them present serious irregularities — say, they’re 90% similar to some other published papers. Well, I’ve just spent $160 USD on these papers, trusting the publisher in the mumbo jumbo that all papers “meet high quality international standards,” are “peer-reviewed by experts,” “handled by selected editors,” etc., and yet they are clearly deeply flawed. Moreover, I investigate further online and I find that these and other issues in the papers had been already pointed out by readers online, e.g., in PubPeer or Retraction Watch comments, more than a year before.

Should I be entitled to a refund?

Take our poll, and leave a comment:

[polldaddy poll=7830400]

19 thoughts on “Should readers get a refund when they pay to access seriously flawed papers?”

  1. I would support the creation of such a system. Moreover, in cases where authors are found to be professionally irresponsible and/or have intentionally committed misconduct, they and their institutions should be made partly responsible for those refunds. Moreover, perhaps the latter entities should also incur additional punitive fines, which can be placed in a general fund to be used for investigating suspected fraudulent science. If such a system could be designed to be practical, I bet its implementation would result in a significant decrease in research misconduct world-wide.

  2. What counts as clearly deeply flawed? Plagiarism? Bad stats? Outdated? I’m not sure how much the publisher guarantees in the exchange. What’s the phrase, buyer beware.

    1. What is probably meant is a paper that is fit for retraction. Or to make the cutoff even clearer: a paper that gets retracted. The latter, however, could create a disincentive to retract papers.

  3. While there should be an expected quality to the information as a “business” standard I would not be surprised if some of the information sites have a small print disclaimer as to verification of reliability lies not with them but the authors.

    Even with the disclaimer I would not be happy with the bad information from that source and would probably not use them in the future!

    1. “some of the information sites have a small print disclaimer as to verification of reliability lies not with them but the authors.” — This is actually a general disclaimer appearing in most Brazilian periodicals, in which they state that all responsibility for the quality and content, including grammar, relies entirely on the authors. On the other hand, usually these papers are open access on Scielo, thus would not fit in the example.

      “I would not be happy with the bad information from that source and would probably not use them in the future!” — My issue on this another aspect is that, based on the diversity of sources exposed on PubPeer alone, I should not basically trust any publisher anymore, except for those so small or disliked that nobody comments on them.

  4. The question misses the bigger point – is anyone foolish enough to actually pay access charges these days? I would argue that anyone paying these fees is lacking in financial wherewithal to begin with, so should just suck it up and pay.

    In industry it may be different (although I have plenty of industry friends who regularly ask me to pull papers for them). For most people in an academic setting, if it can’t be had for free online via a university subscription then it doesn’t exist. Even inter-library loan (ILIAD) only takes 24 hrs. and is $5 for the first paper, $3 for subsequent ones. As a Univ. professor you’d have to be out of your mind to spend $160 on paper access fees.

    Of course, there’s always the #icanhazpdf hash-tag on Twitter, but if the publishers ask then you didn’t hear about it from me.

    1. I agree with Paul Brookes.

      Is this really an issue? How many actual active researchers are paying these fees? How many researchers don’t have institutional access to journals, and also don’t have any collaborators with institutional access?

      In any case, the journals are only warranting that the pdf your purchase was actually published in the journal. They are not certifying that the results are true, valid, worthwhile, or may not be retracted in the future. The relevance and quality of any published work is up to the researcher to determine.


      1. “many actual active researchers are paying these fees? How many researchers don’t have institutional access to journals, and also don’t have any collaborators with institutional access?”

        Actually in my country getting institutional access to the papers means not only all researchers payed for it, but also most people they know. The access was payed with taxes, and it was really expensive. Maybe publishers should refund these institutions in case they complain?

        Well, if publishers are charging for a product, what happens if the product sold does not meet the description, for instance, of an “original article”? I think maybe publishers should refund buyers who prove they were misled into a wrong purchase.

        1. If you buy a rotten apple in a store, and you take it back the next day, guaranteed, you’ll get a refund, or a substitute apple. Only in science publishing do we have to pay for rotten apples, get no refund, and expect to say silent about this. The last time I complained to Springer about why they were still charging 39.99 US$ for a retracted paper, I got a really aggressively defensive response. The paper, retracted and all, still sits with a 39.99 US$ price tag:
 (is this right?)
          In that sense, Elsevier has chosen the right path and has made all retracted papers open access, with a nice big red RETRACTED stamped accross the PDF file. Finally, institutions are actually paying for rubbish because they usually purchase packages and do not use a pay-per-PDF system, so they will usually purchase access to several dozen or hundreds of titles, independent of the rotten apples in the cart. If more scientists start to inform librarians and heads of department of the bad or fraudulent science that their budgets are buying, then maybe they would think twice about it.

          I support two things, in this order of development:
          a) All retracted articles should be open access.
          b) Finally, all science must be made open access, particularly Springer books, which are potentially masquerading plagiarism and/or figure duplication (hypothesis).

          Maybe we need an online petition to request a) and b)? If 100,000 scientists sign this petition, it will be difficult for Elsevier, Springer, Taylor and Francis and Wiley-Blackwell to ignore. As I have said before, if hypothetically somehow we could freeze payment by every institute on this planet for just one year, we could force the top publishewrs to make all content open access and free, the way science should be. If everything were free, that would allow us to do a massive correction of the scientific literature. I ask, does the responsibility of these publishers truly lie with science, or with the financial lining in their pockets? There needs to be more outrage and greater protest. The problem is we have such a weak, passifist base among scientists that don’t want trouble, that don’t want to challenge the establishment and that just like things the way they are.

  5. I more or less agree that one should not be able to put junk behind a paywall and hide it among not complete junk papers and charge for it: Here’re the two quintessential problems, I think. What’s the threshold for junk? And what % of a subscription service can be considered junk before the subscriber is entitled to a refund? If we allow John Smith to get a refund after finding out the paper X is trash, shouldn’t subscribers to that journal or a database containing it get a refund too if they ask?

    With that said, I have to wonder about the author of the question and their diligence. “Let’s say I’m collecting relevant papers to write a review, or preparing a project, and I have rather limited time.” If you’re writing a review, and you have a rather limited time, and you aren’t pretty familiar with the literature already, you probably shouldn’t be writing that review. Secondly, one should be familiar with the quality researchers and journals in one’s field. If a paper is stumbled across it an unfamiliar journal by unfamiliar authors, one should check out the editorial board. Are they familiar? Did the authors train under someone decent? Are they publishing with reputable people? Giving talks to good people? The question asker then has two possibilities… these papers are bad apples that slipped through the cracks. In which case, if they are really worthless they should e-mail the editor, post on pubpeer, explain their gripe and ask for a refund. If they purchased a paper by an unknown author, in a questionable journal, and it turns out to be terrible, they should do the same thing, but not be surprised that this happened and should try a little better to get to know the field before embarking on a review next time.

    1. QAQ, these are excellent points and good questions. In addition, I would add one more quintessential aspect. The responsibility of a scientist is to make available their literature upon request. Point, no questions about this. What really irritates me nowadays are scientists who think that requests can and should be ignored. If the reason is academic, and this implies for academic scrutiny, then a scientist has the responsibility of making literature available upon request. Another issue that is rarely discussed is the request from a publisher for a PDF file if there is reasonable doubt or belief that the paper in question may be a duplicate, or may contain questionable science based on evidence from other studies by that scientist or group. What I have recently found is that publishers are aggressively defending their financial model at the expense of academic scrutiny. This, I think, is an extremely serious negative development and I am not sure how to get around this problem, in fact.

  6. I would definitely say no, unless it can be shown that the publication was aware of the issues in the paper (if a paper is being investigated, it could be argued to not offer it for sale, but it could also be argued that the innocent until retracted principle should hold). It would be better to offer some kind of reward to anyone who points out such issues that it warrants a retraction, big enough to cover any paywall fees.

  7. I wonder about what these paywalls mean to other countries, where $20-$30 dollars means quite a bit, and they don’t have the institutional access like many of us. I would think I would want a refund.

    I find that people use the pay per paper model in urgent need, see time 3:44 to about 5:20 of this PhD Comics video as an example:
    Of course this video promotes open access, which is the opposite of paywalls.

    As a scientist that has taken a library science class, I want to let people know that librarians are well aware that the cost model for subscriptions to many of these publishing giants is burdensome (for all) especially the libraries. Our tax dollars support research, and then paying someone else to have the rights, well that is what our current reality is.

    I will say that we in the US are lucky enough to have Pubmed, a great search engine that is “free”. We only started this in 1996, and we also have the MEDLINE database with coverage from 1946, this was so that medical data can be shared and accessed as soon as medically possible. People all over the world use our search engine, and english is still the language of science.

    I think our system is changing, slowly, as open access is still emerging and evolving, with spaces dedicated towards scientific discussion such as PubMed Commons and Pubpeer, oh and of course retraction watch! 😉

    The internet has changed how we get our data, and how we process that data and publishers need to adapt. They are hanging on for dear life, can we give them another option to make money, and perhaps evolve with the science?

  8. Although it’s not completely finished (we still need to make an index page), this is maybe a good time and place to point out that each journal now has their own PubPeer page (e.g.

    We will eventually make these pages easier to find with an index of all journals, but in the meantime you can find links to these pages at the top of each article page. For example, at the top of this page: there is a link “PubPeer > J. Biol. Chem.”. Click on J. Biol Chem. and you go their page.

    So for the moment, to find the comments on papers in your favorite journals, just search for the journal, go to the first search result, click on the link at the top of the page.

    Don’t worry we will make this easier and more obvious to you and the journalsin the near future.

    1. The link above is not working because the HTML code used in this wordpress page removed the final ‘.’ from the link. it should be “” with a full stop at the end of the link.

    2. Several plant scientists are interested in using PubPeer to post anonymous comments about seriously flawed papers in plant science journals across a range of publishers. Other papers contain duplicated data, or figures, and we wish to make a public repository of these cases, for scrutiny by other peers, or by the public. In several cases, we are not getting the desired response, in some cases, absolute silence, from the editor boards and publisher, who clearly are at a loss of words with the level of errors that we are detecting, while they continue to reap record profits off the very same flawed science. If we wish to introduce a new journal that is not linked to a DOI, or to PubMed, is this possible at PubPeer? Can journals or publishers listed by Beall at also be listed? I think the latter is important because these predatory OA journals are also starting to eat away at the quality fabric of higher level journals, so they deserve a similar system for scrutiny. Can we create our own route directory for journals, or is this created by PubPeer? PubPeer is surely one of the revolutionary tools of the science revolution taking place, as is RW for acting as the public forum, so making the system easier to follow and simpler to use is essential because alot of scientists I know are very timid, very wary of exposure, but have alot of pertinent things to say about academic papers, but feel that they don’t quite yet have the appropriate platform to do it. Can PubPeer give a public indication of how many new records are added monthly and how many of the cases, as a percentage, result in errata or retractions? I think some data about traffic, participation and success rate (report transformed into actionable consequences) would be important to further promote PubPeer. I have a large data base of colleagues who are just anxiously waiting for a suitable platform, so if you could be a bit more forthcoming with some data, then this could be a game changer, I believe, at least in plant science.

      1. We provide a forum for people to discuss published data. We can easily add references to our database and we could also allow users to input references to any papers that our outside of our current db. However, we simply don’t have the time/resources to track down the consequences of comments posted to PubPeer. Retraction Watch is doing a great job of following up on these sorts of things!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.