GSA’s single article access scam

Note: I am not using the word scam in a legal sense here, but as an everyday language term. Maybe a case could be made that GSA’s behavior is in fact fraudulent, but I believe such a case would fail on a technicality (see below). Still, personally I’d feel scammed, defrauded, swindled if I had fallen for GSA’s trick.

A few days ago work required me to look for various scientific papers on the Hell Creek Formation, including one on its palaeobotany.

screenshot of GSA website

There it is, but as you can see the article is not open access, and the Museum für Naturkunde does not have institutional access. That’s not uncommon. And GSA offers a bunch of options to access the article PDF:

screenshot of GSA website

So, I can:

  1. Sign in, if I have a user account with access.
  2. Purchase short term access – 1 day from the very computer I am on, for US$ 25.00
  3. Use some weird thing I have never heard of that sounds like a publisher’s bad version of LEGO
  4. Sign up…..

Well, obviously, 1, 3 and 4 are not really good for anything. Bloc of Docs is nothing but a credit thing that reduced the number of separate credit card purchases, but doesn’t give you a rebate. Signing uP is for

Member/Fellow and Affiliate Student/K-12 Teacher

I ain’t any of that, so no good. And Signing in if I haven’t signed up….. well, you get the idea. In the end, this means I need to fork over a whopping US$ 25.00 for a single article. Ain’t gonna do do for sure! Thus, I started writing an email to our library, asking them to but the article – and then I stopped. After all, this article is part of a special issue, and it is highly likely that we will need more articles from it soon. Thus, I thought it worth checking if maybe there would be a rebate on the entire special issue. And lookie: You can’t buy it in print, but you can buy it in one go as an ebook!
screenshot of GSA website

And incidentally, the price is quite reasonable all of a sudden:  mere US$ 20.00 for both GSA members and non-members!

Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Why was there no link on the article’s page (the page I get directed to by Google and other searches) saying “Purchase entire Special Issue containing this article for US$ 20.00”?

I guess I know why there is no such link. Quite obviously, nobody in their right mind would spent US$ 25.00 for one-day access to one single individual article if they can instead spend LESS MONEY, US$ 20.00, to get PERMANENT ACCESS to MORE ARTICLES!

So, I click the ebook link and get this:


screenshot of GSA website

Oh, so now it is not an ebook format, but a PDF? Suits me, but why can’t GSA get things straight on their own freakin’ website? And it costs even less now, a mere US$ 9.99!

I did buy this, out of my own pocket, and successfully downloaded the entire PDF.

So, to sum up:

If you search for an article of this Special Issue by title, you are directed to a page where you can buy it for one day for US$ 25.00. The page does not inform you that you can buy this article along with the rest of the Special Issue for less than 40% of the cost of one-day-one-article access.

I guess GSA is making a hell of a lot of money by not telling you!

Why is this not legally fraud? In order to be illegal, GSA would have to falsify or misrepresent facts, and gain a financial advantage for them or others while causing you a financial loss. That’s arguably the case if they pretend you need to fork over US$25.00 when in fact US$ 9.99 is enough. But those prices are for two different items, one of which simply happens to contain the other. Nowhere does GSA claim explicitly that the only way to access this one single article is via buying it outright. They just implicitly pretend it is. Thus, any court would throw out a lawsuit.

Morally, GSA’s behavior is clearly wrong. That’s undeniable, and I am looking forward to what GSA has to say when I email them about this.


About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy
This entry was posted in Open Access, Open Access publishing, rants, WTF?. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to GSA’s single article access scam

  1. Chase says:

    Huh. I ran into the same problem on GSA a few weeks ago while doing some research on the flora of Late Cretaceous New Jersey. I assumed it was just a bug, but if you’re having the same issue, GSA is just playing dirty, much like so many other journals today….

  2. geosociety says:

    The scenario described in this post is (possibly ironically) a result of the fact that, over time, many options for delivering content have become available. GSA has adopted these as it was able, not with any intent to defraud, but instead to use every opportunity to distribute content, something we feel is desirable for consumers and also for authors of the publications. Inconsistencies arise because these options are not all from one source, were not designed for the same type of user, and are not 100% controlled by GSA.

    GSA journals and books are hosted online via HighWire Press, with the main purpose of giving access to individual and library subscribers. GSA pays extra (to PayPal and HighWire) for two services that offer access to people who don’t want to purchase a full subscription:
    – Bloc of Docs access is for individual researchers who only want a few papers a year from their choice of journals or books and find that having an account to pull from is convenient. They do not need to be GSA members and papers cost as little as US$4.00 each.
    – Pay-per-view access is generally used by companies that need a specific piece of information and are not averse to paying a one-time fee for exactly what they need and no more.

    GSA also has an internally hosted bookstore that includes all out-of-print books and maps on that site as PDFs. All of the older books are priced at $9.99. Some books are free. If anyone happens to land first on the HighWire site, they can click on the “buy the hard copy” or the “bookstore” link and get to all the versions available at the GSA store. Our e-books are also on Google Books, and Google sets those prices. Google has many GSA books at $7.99 or even free.

    As with anything in the online market, the same item can have wildly different prices. We all have experienced this when shopping for pretty much any item. For example, a few years ago, book re-sellers were getting hundreds of dollars for certain out-of-print Decade of North American Geology (DNAG) volumes on Amazon, and now anyone can get a PDF of any DNAG volume for $9.99 at the GSA bookstore. A message to the “contact us” link on any GSA web page will go to a staff person who is happy to explain the cheapest option for anyone who asks.

    • Many thanks for your detailed reply. It is very laudable that GSA makes ebooks and full book PDFs available at such low prices. In fact, if one calculated the per-page cost the one-size-fits-all price is negligible, and shows a strong commitment to making science easily available and affordable. Well done, GSA!

      Your answer explains nicely how this sorry situation came to be, however, it fails to answer the one very obvious question:

      Why does GSA, a society with a vested interest in making its publications available, not make the tiny effort to create consistency in pricing, or at least make the information readily available?
      The very obvious answer that suggests itself is that the status quo is advantageous to GSA.
      By the way, saying one can email and get all info is a tad ridiculous. If there was a prominent link saying “Click here for alternative options, including whole-book pricing at US$ 9.99”, then it would be helpful.

      Thus: will GSA make changes either to the pricing or to the website, in order to keep people from outrageously overpaying? After all, GSA knows the cost of all books (US$ 9.99 each, for the e-version), so adding that information in a highly visible way shouldn’t be difficult.

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