How upset should we get when articles are paywalled by mistake?

Mistakes happen. Including, sometimes, putting articles that should be freely available behind a paywall. This occasionally happens — though likely not with alarming frequency, according to publishing expert Charles Oppenheim, who recently wrote about the issue in Scholarly Kitchen. Still, the costs can literally be high, both for the authors who paid to make their articles free and the readers who must pay unnecessarily. Plus, there are indications that not everyone in the publishing community takes the problem seriously. We spoke with patient advocate and open-access advocate Graham Steel, the editor of a new site that tracks such mistakes, Paywall Watch (also recently profiled by The Scientist).

Retraction Watch: What inspired you to develop this website (not to be confused with another Paywall Watch blog, which tracks subscriptions to media sites)? Did any personal experience with a paywall or some other publishing problem prompt you or any of your co-founders to create the site? What’s the ultimate goal?

GS: We started the site out of frustration that the nature of such issues has been ongoing for such a long time and there is virtually no regulation in the academic publishing market to combat them effectively. ​

We don’t think anyone has broadly collected examples in one place as we have so in that sense, it fills a real need. As per our About Page: 

We hope the aggregation of content on this website will empower funders, authors, readers, subscribers, research institutes and libraries to make better choices in future when it comes to entrusting scholarly research outputs with digital service providers.

Our approach is similar to Retraction Watch, but we focus on a different area in publishing.

RW: Occasionally we report on retraction notices that are behind a paywall – contrary to the advice of the Committee on Publication Ethics. Sometimes, when we ask about the paywall, publishers will acknowledge it was a mistake and remove the paywall. How many examples do you find have been paywalled in error?

GS: Thus far, we have released 39 posts, mostly relating to individual/several cases where Open Access (OA) papers have been found to be wrongly paywalled. However in the likes of this post, the scale was in the thousands.

To date, we have done so manually, but are currently looking into making this less labor intensive with more systematic approaches soon.

RW: How many instances of paywalls do you believe are deliberate – ie, the publishers purposefully charge for an article knowing it should be available for free?

GS: We do not think that in general, traditional publishers deliberately paywall OA content but rather, it is more likely due to poor systems/incompetence of staff. This is an ongoing issue to this day (most recently, May 19th).

Interestingly, we have found zero evidence of fully OA publishers doing likewise.

RW: Do you put much effort into monitoring the activities of so-called predatory publishers?

GS: Whilst we are aware of so-called predatory publishers, we have not yet investigated them in detail in this regard.

RW: Your post content that includes harsh words for publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Oxford University Press. Given that the publishers each process thousands of papers and, as you note, most incidents of paywalled OA content are mistakes, do you think such public “shaming” will work? Presumably publishers aren’t happy with some of your posts — are you at all concerned this approach might backfire in some way?

GS: All of the materials posted on Paywall Watch are in the public domain. We are simply highlighting them in a singular place. As per our About Page, “Paywall Watch is a website dedicated to monitoring and documenting notable problems at academic publishers”. Regardless of whether or not publishers aren’t happy, if such errors on their behalf did not occur, there would be no need to document them in the first place.

RW: In some of your posts, you quote from blogs describing mistaken paywalls that were written years ago — such as this post from March 2015 that describes an OA article that was mistakenly paywalled. The publisher has since fixed the problem, and the article is now freely available, but your post doesn’t note that. What is the purpose of bringing attention to a previous mistake that has been addressed?

GS: In a lot of cases, publishers do fix these errors (such as the one you highlight), but only after they have been brought to their attention either via blog posts/email exchanges or on social media. It’s important to document the history as well as what is happening right now, so that no-one can say when a new instance is documented “this is an isolated issue”. It’s not: this has been going on for years, despite numerous attempts to alert publishers to the problem. We are documenting that.

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5 thoughts on “How upset should we get when articles are paywalled by mistake?”

  1. If you neglect to add a note to your posts indicating that the publisher has made matters right, you are telling the publisher not to bother making matters right as it won’t help them. Surely this is not the message you want to be sending?

  2. >GS: We do not think that in general, traditional publishers deliberately paywall OA content but rather, it is more likely due to poor systems/incompetence of staff. This is an ongoing issue to this day (most recently, May 19th).
    >Interestingly, we have found zero evidence of fully OA publishers doing likewise.

    Why is that interesting? Presumably fully OA publishers don’t have a paywall facility at all, so there is no way to accidentally miscategorize an articles paywall/OA status.

  3. I wonder if there is a similar rate of articles that are *supposed* to be behind a paywall, but are accidentally made freely available on the publisher site. If it is, it suggest this is largely just because mistakes happen in the process of marking articles as paywalled or not. However if there were more articles “accidentally paywalled” than “accidentally un-paywalled” it might indicate a difference in the level of effort a given publisher was putting in to preventing these errors.

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