It must have happened to you: you do a search with your favorite search engine, you click for an article that looks like it might be exactly what you need, then BAM a few seconds after you start reading it, you’re hit with a paywall. It’s a classic bait-and-switch: they made the content of the article available to search engines so you’d get the promise of something that would address your needs, but when you go to the site the article that was offered is blocked for you.

I first encountered this when I needed to look up important information for the care of a patient. It’s especially infuriating then, because the article behind the paywall is often the product of government-funded research. The people who did the work — both the research and the paper writing — were paid with public money. The scientists reviewing the paper are volunteers. Yet the publisher will usually ask an obscene sum to let you download a copy of the paper that they neither researched nor wrote nor reviewed. Often, a patient’s health is critically dependent on the information from that publicly-funded research.

There is a legal backdoor: most publishers are compelled to allow the authors of a paper to give away reprints for free. The problem is that burdening authors with processing reprint requests takes them away from their valuable research and can result in days of delay when patients need care immediately.

enter archive services

There are archive services to which authors (and others) can upload copies of their papers, which can then be downloaded immediately and without cost. Needless to say, big academic publishers do everything they can to shut these sites down, claiming that they violate the publishers’ copyright claims on the scientific data that they did not research, document, pay for, nor review. Honestly, I had no ethical qualms about using these archive services when patient care was critically dependent on timely access to what should be public information.

but what about journalism?

I struggle a lot more with bait-and-switch paywalls around journalism. I think journalism is incredibly important, but I honestly don’t know how journalism is to be funded in the internet age. I know what doesn’t work (for me):

bait-and-switch

If you’re going to let search engines index your work, you can’t then throw up a paywall around it when somebody who found it on the search engine tries to read it. You’ve deflected them from finding other potential sources of the information with a promise that you have it available, then after they’ve invested in the time to access it on your site, you’re extorting them before you’ll deliver on your promise.

mandatory subscriptions

Chances are, I’m only going to ever look at one or two articles from your publication, and often those will be a quick glance to see if they’ll deliver on your promise of what they contain. Your clickbait headlines work against you here.

If I bought a subscription to every publication for which I only wanted to see a single article, I’d be spending thousands on subs and, like it or not, I’m never going to read (or pay for access to) your entire magazine/site. There are rare exceptions like 404 Media and TidBITS where so much of their content is relevant to me that a subscription is worth it. (TidBITS is free and without paywalls, but I bought a lifetime membership anyway.)

Even if I were willing to subscribe or pay a per-article fee, I’m generally not willing to spend more time fighting your miserable website (and, yes, they seem to all rate as miserable… or worse) than I’ll spend reading the article.

data mining

“This isn’t a paywall” but you’re going to insist on my providing valuable personal information that will then be sold or leaked or otherwise abused (possibly in spite of your best intentions). And, again, your miserable sign-up pages really don’t help.

rude popups

Teasing the article, then cramming a popup window in my face after I’ve started reading it is rude. I endeavor to avoid doing any kind of business with rude people.


Does the fact that a publisher uses deceptive or rude tactics to try to get me to subscribe justify the use of services such as archive.today? I don’t know. I struggle. Often when I hit a rude or bait-and-switch paywall, I just click away. Sometimes, though, what I click on is a bookmarklet that automatically searches an archive service for a copy of the paywalled article I’m reading.

Oh, how I wish micropayments are a thing. If I could just tap a button and send a buck or five to the publisher of an article, I’d do so many times a day. In its earliest days, I thought maybe bitcoin would be a way to realize that dream, but the entire cryptocurrency space seems like a cesspool right now.

Until someone comes up with a solution that lets me pay for articles I want to read without wasting relatively huge amounts of my time or making me pay for vast tracts of content I’ll never read, I’m going to continue to struggle with — and sometimes use — archive services.

—2p

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