Whiplashed by paywalls, drowning in subscriptions

In the early days of the Internet, a lot of digital content was free. Getting our attention was more important than getting our money. Fast forward to today and we have thickening subscription paywalls everywhere. In this article I take a look at the paywalls that stand between curious readers and scholarly materials.

I had the idea for this short piece while I was researching for an article and hitting a lot of paywalls and I wondered how much my R&R (reading and research) habit would cost if I were to subscribe to all these paywalled information sources.  So I kept  track of them and their paywalls over a few months in late 2020. The list of publications I tracked is here.

I am good at finding the articles and books I want to read online for free. It is my version of a treasure hunt in cyberspace. So facing a stubborn paywall is annoying.

Perhaps this annoyance is based in the fact that during almost all my reading-life since age 5, I had access to an institutional library either through school or through work. The last school library I used was that of the New School for Social Research in New York city, where I was a as a PhD student. Because the New School is part of a university consortium, its students have access to other local libraries, including the extensive Bobst Library of New York University.

When I started working for the UN, its Dag Hammarskjold Library (DHL) became my new library. I knew it a little from an earlier visit as a graduate student researching materials for my MA thesis (on the New International Information Order, in case you are curious). This was just before the Internet and everything digital became ubiquitous. Today I would not need to make a special trip to New York for research because UN materials are electronically accessible. But I must admit coming to the big apple was exciting.

The DHL  is not an extensive library. But its collection of UN records and treaties is  priceless for scholars. It also carries hundreds of newspapers and journals from around the world which the UN staff finds priceless. Reading their favorite home newspaper is the most frequent use of DHL by staff.
Also, staff can ask for a specific article which the librarian will find and send in print or digital copy. I used this service frequently. (A small secret: I also used the small DHL auditorium now and then for playing guitar because I liked its sound quality.)

When you move from school to work you merely replace one institutional library with another but retiring is a different story. The library access I had taken for granted over the decades was gone. I quickly found an alternative: the New York Public Library. Lucky for me, NYPL is second largest after the Library of Congress in the US and the third largest in the world. Plus, NYPL appeals to my egalitarian side. Getting into the UN grounds needed a UN ID, and getting into the New School library needed a school ID. The second largest library in the country is open to all. It is truly inclusive and leaves no one behind! (I love the NYPL and wrote about it here.)

Returning to my mini project tracking publication paywalls – it helped put a dollar value on my R&R habit and to the value of having a full library access. The tracking, which was over four months not a full year, showed that if I responded to each “subscribe now” demand, I would have spent approximately $3,000 for subscriptions!

This amount may be insignificant for the very rich or even the merely well off. But it is not insignificant for the majority who fall in low or limited income groups especially as income inequality gap keeps growing. Imagine a young person just out of college, at an entry level job earning 30K a year. She would be spending 10% of her income just to get through paywalls! Since most young people in major metropolitan centers like New York spend 50% or more of their income for rent, the portion of subscription cost would be in the 25-30% of their income after rent, possibly competing with spending for basics like food. This is a grotesque inequality of access. And it is especially disappointing in our instantly-available-information age.

The paywalls are making the publishers richer while reducing incentives for the general population to be readers and learners after leaving school. Literacy gaps start in early childhood and follow people in school as well as after school unless corrective incentives are deliberately added to the mix of their life making reading affordable, accessible, and rewarded along the way. 

Let’s recall  that reading is declining among Americans across all races. Pew Research Center found that readership of daily newspapers has been declining over the years: from 54% in 2004 to 29% in 2012.  A majority of people in the US, and elsewhere in the world, get their information from social media despite its questionable trustability.

Young people are increasingly limited to reading Instagram captions or short texts (like tweets) and struggle to read anything longer with deeper analysis. Reading of books, digital or print, has been declining as well. Even in New York, known as a city that reads, there is less reading. I used to see lots of people in the subway reading a book or a newspaper. Today I would be shocked to see somebody reading as almost everyone in the subway car would be immersed in their smart phones checking social media or playing games. I am not against games mind you, but an entire generation not reading more than a caption or a maximum 280 character tweet makes for a scary future. 

If our economic system does not enable greater and affordable access to good information, how can we expect people to be well informed citizens able to discern fake from real, and truth from lies? Less reading makes for a less curious citizenry. When people stop being curious they ask fewer questions and that is when they become easy prey for manipulative politicians and greedy business people.

When good writing is behind paywalls, and when the paywalls are thickening, there is less incentive to read. Not only because reading becomes unaffordable but also because the paywall  creates a quasi rejection: an If-you-don’t-want-me-I-don’t-want-you-either psychology.  Despite my great interest in reading and research, even I find myself instinctively avoiding the sites with hard paywalls, like the Wall Street Journal. My reaction is to move on and try another link that is more welcoming. 

If leaders want well informed smart citizens, they need to enable the infrastructure to help them become that. They need to make information more accessible not less. They need to fund libraries better. They need to reprimand publishers of journals and newspapers that charge exorbitant subscription rates. They need to create the kind of information system that has equity at its center.

Already the US is the most unequal developed country in the world. We should not add insult to injury with paywall-based information haves and have-nots.


Tracked list of publications

These publications below are the sources I visited frequently during the tracking period in late 2020, as I satisfied my R&R (reading and research) habit. The purpose of tracking was to see how much it would cost if I subscribed to all of these sources as they kept telling me to do. (The list is alphabetized though I did not double check)

[The] Atlantic – is a great publication of excellent writing, research and commentary. They have some of the best writers who produce well thought through and researched articles to which you do not say “TLDR” (too-long-didn’t-read) because you want to read the long articles. They make you think, like a great piece of art makes you feel when you see it or hear it. I had subscribed to it some time ago and did not renew at a time of needing to streamline my magazine subscriptions. I recently wanted to subscribe again but realized they no longer have the special subscription rates they used to offer, sometimes through Amazon even. If you sign up with your email, you get five free articles a month after which their articles go behind a paywall. The annual subscription is $49.99 (digital only), $59.99 (digital and print), and $100 which gives discounts on merchandize and priority access to events the publication organizes. But they have a lower rate for students and teachers which I really like. 

[The] Conversation – free and great online collection of articles written by academics without the dense academic language. The articles are easily digestible compared to typical academic works which tend to be  intimidating to those unfamiliar with the academic metalanguage. Although it is free readers wil lget pop up messages from editors reminding the reader to consider a voluntary contribution. I read their articles often and include many in the suggested reading list for my my students when I teach.

[The] Economist – until recently I received several newsletters from this publication with links pointing to their content. Following these links lands you on the intended page but usually only the first few paragraphs of the article are visible. The rest is covered with a notification that you must have a subscription to continue reading. Many economist colleagues considered it a must read publication for keeping up with all things economics. But being a weekly, if you do not make time to read the issues they start accumulating which is when I stopped my subscription a few years ago because the stack of unread issues was getting obscenely tall. If you sign up with an email address, you get 5 free articles per month which you will use up quickly. Subscription is $190 for one year. They have cheaper options for students which is great. 

Fast Company – I get one of their daily digest newsletters of summaries and links to their articles. The linked articles you can read for free if you do not mind the advertisement on the page. It is usually in the form of a video that plays automatically as soon as you start to scroll down the page but you can stop the video and even better, you can make it go away in reader view. I do that often because the moving images are too distracting for me. I really like this publication’s focus on design,  innovation, technology, business, and sustainability. They also organize several competition events focused on innovation and creativity in technology and business, which are likely the bigger source of their revenue because the annual subscription price is only $9.99.

Foreign Affairs – I subscribed to this publication on and off because I am an international relations junkie and this magazine is a top fix for that ailment. It carries excellent articles written by people who know what they are writing about. This is not a magazine you flip through when you have an extra ten minutes to fill. It needs good chunk of concentrated reading. The issues may accumulate until you find those solid few hours to read them. That is when I stop my subscription and start again, often using a discounted offer. Registering with your email address gives you two free articles per month. A regular annual subscription is $34.95 for six issues. If you are a student you can get digital only version for $22.95 – which I like a lot.

Harvard Business Review – I get their weekly “hotlist” newsletter which delivers links to the most popular content from the bimonthly flagship publication and online writings. The content is very well written but a bit annoying for its almost exclusive focus on business leaders in C-suite. Since in real life there are more lead than leader, this approach may explains the perception of the publication, and its namesake school, as elitist. (On the other hand,  a publication that costs $20 at the newsstands and a school that costs about $80,000 a year, are only affordable by the elite.)  The web site gives you 2 free articles per month, and 4 free articles if you give them your email to register. Subscriptions range from $99 to $180 per year. The higher amount is the “premium” level with access to print and digital content as well as other goodies like four free ebooks a year.

McKinsey Global Institute – the Institute is the research arm of the consulting company. They conduct and publish a great deal of good research on all kinds of topics. I read mostly their work on climate change, and technology. Their reports are free to read and download. The publications are like a calling card so those who need consulting services see what kind of analysis and quality they will get when they hire McKinsey consultants, which do not come cheap.

Medium – is an online publication platform. It has a quasi social media feel in that you can have a profile based on your topical likes and authors you follow. Access to the platform was free when I discovered it a decade ago. This is a purpose driven platform: (i) to give writers a place to showcase their work without becoming slaves to the large publishing entities, and (ii) to be a place where content is not lost in the cacophony of advertising windows. But then their success got in the way. With growing number of users, the platform had to grow along, and needing more money. To their credit, they went through a period of soul searching considering the two options of subscriptions versus advertising. They chose the subscription model.

Many who write on this platform are independent minded – which appeals to me a lot. Many writers who  gravitated to this platform created a broad diversity of content. Some authors publish only on this platform, and avoid having to maintain their own web site. Others have their own sites but see the platform as an additional point of exposure for their work. President Obama and UN Foundation publish on the platform along with many other well known persons and organizations. I like Medium, its purposefulness, its openness, and encouraging of curiosity. Subscriptions run at the monthly rate of $5 or $50 for the year.

MIT Technology Review –  I get their daily newsletter on developments in technology presented in the broad context of politics, society, and economy. The links in the newsletter are both to their own articles and to those from sources such as Wired, or the New York Times. If the articles point to a source behind a paywall the newsletter alerts you like “($ New York Times)” which is thoughtful.  I like their style of writing and the topics they cover. By signing up to the newsletter you get three free articles a month although a hacker has figured out how to bypass their counter. Subscription cost ranges from $50 (digital only) to $100 per year (ad free digital and print). By the way, less than a year ago these prices were 35.95 and 79.95 respectively. Is this covid-inflation?

National Geographic – my interest in climate change and environmental sustainability takes me to this publication now and then. My recent visit was prompted by a link to an article they published on climate change impact of covid-19 lockdowns around the world. As soon as you tap-click on an article link, you land on an ad-filled page, then get a pop up window informing you that you have 3 free articles left for the month. You can close the pop up window only to get another one that seems impossible to close, and demands that you subscribe. Reader view gets rid of the annoying pop up. A subscription to the National Geographic is $19 for the year.

New Scientist – this is a weekly of science news on a range of topics from health to environment to space. It is their climate change and environmental writing that gets me to their web site now and then. You get a few free articles and can sign up for newsletters. The content is presented in easy to digest form of a few pages rather than the typical dense scientific writing. The home page lists articles that are free to read in a side bar. Their subscription information is presented for each quarter which obscures the total annual cost. Quarterly subscription cost is $59.99 or $240 for the year.

Project Syndicate – this is also an online publication platform with a mission: to enable access of developing country media to high quality analyses and commentaries by well-known experts and public figures. The authors range from politicians, Nobel prize winners, to scientists, economists, business or NGO leaders, and more. Some are authors whose books inspired me in the past. Others are people I know from the UN. Still others are familiar to all of us from newspaper headlines. Their commentaries are syndicated around the world through a partnership involving 500 media outlets. Those in the developed countries pay for the articles which funds dissemination for free or at discounted rates to publications in developing countries. The platform makes its articles available in 13 languages given language is still a barrier to an informed public in many developing countries. This is an effort for global intellectual equity which I like a lot. 

I have been reading their work for nearly two decades and get several of their newsletters. Although many of the articles are freely available, in the last few years their paywall restrictions expanded especially for in-depth analyses. This may be in part because the partner institutions, the print media outlets, have been in financial difficulty, many folding for good or downsizing hence less revenue from partners. An annual subscription to PS is $100. 

Quartz –  their “daily brief” newsletter arrives early so it is usually the first thing I read in the morning. The newsletter is a digest of the day’s political and business happenings, and analyses they have written on contemporary issues. There is also a section called “surprising discoveries” at the end which is an annotated list of articles from other publications. I like this section best because it makes the newsletter seem more about informing me than selling me something, even though there are more than one sales pitches blended into the newsletter. The writing is good and their approach sophisticated: they expect their readers to be interested in serious work without seeming elitist. Another positive about this publication is that while it considers itself a publication for business leaders, its topical coverage gives a lot of room for employees and workers. When you follow a link to their website the counter starts for the three free articles per month. Subscription, which they call “membership,” is $99.99 for the year or $14.99 monthly. 

Researchgate – is an online network for scientists and researchers to share their papers. After you sign up you can search for articles that other members uploaded and post questions related to your own research. The topics list is a wide range from molecular biology to climate change, learning, programming and more. To sign up, you need to prove that you are a scientist/researcher preferably with an institutional email, or publication(s) etc. Even if your “application” is not approved, you can search for materials, read articles or request a copy of it from its author(s). It does not cost to sign up. However, some materials may be behind paywalls of their original publishers. 

Science Direct / Elsevier – Elsevier, is the publisher of hundreds of journals on all kinds of topics. You can sign up for free. If you sign up with an institutional email and if your institution is an Elsevier subscriber, you get access to their materials depending on what kind of subscription your institution has. You can also get a personal subscription if you can afford it. There are different access categories such as open access (anyone can read),  full text access (can read with a subscription), or no access (self-explanatory). Some of the journals are entirely open access like the International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, and many are hybrids of open and paywalled. If the article you want is not open access there is a purchase price which also varies: for example a 2020 article on robots and off-shoring in the International Journal of Economics was $39.99, while an article on graphene in the journal New Carbon Materials was $31.50.

Elsevier makes a big deal of its support for open access journals and articles. But as is usually the case with big business entities, the company still makes money because authors, or their institutions, pay to publish an article as open access. Price for publishing an open access article can go up to $6,000. If you are in a wealthy school this cost will be incorporated into budgets. Those in poorer schools and institutions are increasingly the “publish-nots.” Many if not most of the institutions in the developing countries are in this have-not corner. Subscription prices depend on the journal. For example, the journal Environmental Development is $1200 for a year, but the journal on sustainable energy matters, Joule, costs only $239 for the year (but its article publishing price is a whopping $8600!)

STAT News – is a publication platform on everything medical. I get their daily “morning rounds” newsletter which brings news from the medical industry. Usually the annotated news snippets are enough for me considering I am not a medical professional, just curious about what is new in the field. I read about the mutated Covid-19 virus on STAT a few months before it was news on mainstream media. The subscription, labelled “STAT+” is $29 per month which comes to $348 a year. I had to calculate this myself and think the fact that they do not present the annual subscription rate is a bit underhanded. They also produce in-depth reports that can be purchased (for $499 each) on topics such as Nanotechnology in Medicine or on Chinese Biotech Companies. If you are in the health industry these materials are likely required reading. But then, if you are in the sector you either make enough to be able to afford them or are part of a medical institutions that can.

Taylor and Francis – is another major publisher of hundreds of journals including many on topics that interest me. Searching for journals in environment and sustainability returned nearly 2 million articles in 457 journals! The web site has a spreadsheet of institutional subscription prices most of which are in the $1,000 – 4,000 range with some going up to $6,000.  A person without an institutional subscription to one of these journals, can purchase an article to view it for 48 hours for the price tag of $45, or get the whole journal issue containing the article you want to view over 30 days for $324. The latter price varies by journal. These are expensive products but I find myself at one of their journals about once a month or once every two months. 

Wired – is a print and digital magazine on all things technology taken in its broadest sense. Articles cover review of technological gear, cultural aspects of technology, ideas about technology, and business aspect of technology and more. It is known as the publication that coined the concept of “crowdsourcing” among other innovations. You can read four articles a month for free before you hit the paywall. Regular subscription price is $70 for the year. 

World Economic Forum   convenes the annual Davos meeting: the largest gathering of very rich and powerful people as well as not so rich or powerful people from governmental, non-governmental, and intergovernmental organizations. It used to be an exclusive club when it started more than 40 years ago but has been getting increasingly inclusive over time. WEF has become much more than a meeting and conducts a great deal of research as well. Their research is available for free.  


The above list of subscriptions comes to a total of $2,540 (for the cheapest options) or $2,740 (the expensive options) with prices rounded to the nearest digit. Adding at least one article per month purchased from a publisher such as Taylor and Francis adds $540 to the total. So my annual cost for R&R tracked over just four months cover to about $3,000 a year! The total might be larger if the tracking had been over 6 or 12 months. 

Can you paywalled articles for free? 

Sometimes and it needs time and persistence. Easiest way is through the public library. The New York Public Library provides access to hundreds perhaps thousands of journals. You can search online and download articles using your library card which anyone who lives in this city can get free of charge. Most libraries are also part of the Inter-library Loan system which you can use to ask for copies of articles or book chapters. I got copies of Economist case studies through the NY Public Library many times.

Another way is to run a search for the author(s) of an article. Often times academic authors upload copies of their work in multiple locations, including their own websites, to increase exposure to their work. If the article is behind a hard paywall, the copy you find elsewhere will be a draft version, not the edited version that is behind the paywall. I have found countless articles using this approach.

There are people who claim they have hacked one or more hard paywalls but I never learned how to do that. Is there an online course on becoming a hacker?  

A little bit of good news for readers of research papers:

With respect to the large publishing houses, there is an important development in support of open access publishing: cOAlition S, and its Plan S. Some of the publishers listed above are members of the coalition and others may join. World Health Organization is a member UN organization because it believes health research should not be hostage to exorbitant costs, and be accessible to researchers. Plan S came to effect at the start of 2021. Under the plan organizations that fund research (WHO, government agencies, medical associations, foundations and the like) now require that the research they funded is published open access and immediately, not after an embargo period that can be up to 48 months. Although there are more open access journals and articles, some of the large funders such as US federal agencies, and similar entities in India and China, did not join the initiative reducing its potential impact. This is a great initiative for equity and it deserves a lot more than this little blurb. May be in a future article. In the meantime, this article in Science magazine provides a good overview of the initiative. 



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About Zehra Aydin 14 Articles
Retired UN staff; expert in sustainable development, SDGs, UN system and international environmental negotiations; writing on climate change, inequality, technology and the UN; teaching sustainable development and corporate social responsibility

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