Should scientific research be available free?

I find it difficult to give a clear Yes or No answer. It rather depends on the authors and their intentions and preferences. It just is the fact that a paper will automatically be protected by copyright, and copyright exists to provide encouragement to authors (by giving them some income ideally) to continue to make discoveries. As with any kind of property the author can assign the copyright, and this usually happens with journal articles, so that the copyright becomes the property of a publisher. I regard the ownership of a copyright by a learned society or a university press as a pretty unthreatening situation: after all the university press has a mission to extend learning, so might be trusted not to exploit this ownership. Of course not all publishers are idealistic university presses, and perhaps some university presses are less idealistic than others! I think we can assume that while academics’ motivation in writing journal articles is probably not to make money*, they definitely don’t do it to make money for large corporations.

Many authors of papers in scientific journals are employed by universities or research institutions, and are paid, via salary, to do the research that they write up in journal articles. Whether or not this salary comes from public funds, one could argue that the work has already been paid for by the public in one way or another. Journal publishers tend not to pay for the creation of the papers they publish: everyone, editors, referees, authors, being engaged in a sort of general-welfare effort. Now this is fine as far as it goes, but add that inevitable element — profit-seeking publishing companies — and the waters become turbid. Elsevier is everyone’s favorite villain in this scenario, and their profitability, in the 30% band, does nothing to blunt the attacks.

Sci-Hub to the rescue! (It even has a Wikipedia page.) A Russian organization, it has downloaded thousands of academic papers onto the web where they are available free of charge. Unsurprisingly Elsevier is suing.

At The American Council on Science and Health Chuck Dinerstein blogs about Sci-Hub, and the problems of the unaffiliated scholar. Being forced to go underground and get your stuff free can’t help stimulating feelings of guilt. But still, if it’s there, it’s pretty easy to us the “knowledge wants to be free” kind of argument to justify getting it. There appear to be more mundane problems with Sci-Hub: Scholarly Kitchen has an article on Sci-Hub and identity theft.

The price of academic journals is a real problem. It costs so much to subscribe to important journals that libraries find their book budgets squeezed more and more. Of course there are costs involved, but one cannot avoid the reflection that many journal subscription prices are ludicrously high: can 24 issues really “be worth” more than $15,000 a year? Presumably it can, or people wouldn’t be paying up. Publishers and their subscription agents seek to alleviate this price problem by bundling, but of course getting a discount on a couple of journals by subscribing to half-a-dozen more doesn’t really save you money. Justin Peters’ article at Slate on why academic journals cost so much is pretty sensible, but for me it goes off the rails when it claims “after World War II, heavy government and industrial funding of university science laboratories led to unprecedented specialization of the sciences. This outcome in turn led to a new crop of specialized scientific journals with similarly narrow foci so that these specialist scientists could have outlets in which to publish their research results. As the number of publications increased, academic libraries felt obliged to subscribe to them all or to as many as possible.” Isn’t it more likely that specialization in the sciences results from the nature of knowledge? We no longer talk about “natural philosophy” because to do so would obscure the differences between philosophy and logic at one end and, let’s say, interpreting the Hadron Collider’s results for particle physics at the other. The more we find out about our world the more complicated the structure of scientific (and all other) knowledge becomes. This isn’t a result of government funding: the ramification of government funding is a result of it.

Here’s an article from BloombergView, (linked via The Digital Reader). I’m always surprised at these people who go on about how iniquitous it is that publishers (especially these days Elsevier) charge for material which is available for less elsewhere. “If you want to read an article from the Journal of Financial Economics, and you don’t have a subscription or access to a library that does, publisher Elsevier will charge you $39.95. For one article!” shouts Justin Fox. You rarely see complaints at The Folio Society’s “unscrupulous” attempts to get you to pay $75.95 for Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, when everybody knows it is available for free as a Kindle book! Hey; we publishers are in business! Our job is to get money from readers. If there are folks out there who find it simplifies their life to buy that article from Elsevier at $39.95, who are we to tell them they can’t do that? Naturally it doesn’t sound good, and is surely bad PR, but as long as there are buyers we’ll offer the service. The real problem arises when there’s not a free version out there of course.

Now we turn over another stone: is it OK for a publisher to republish a free, open access article, and charge money for it? At Scholarly Kitchen, Joe Esposito, using his early experience at New American Library as evidence, says yes, as long as the rights are taken care of. The ability of publishers to sell public domain stuff, Shakespeare, Dickens etc. for good money despite free versions being available continues to impress, and why shouldn’t this be true in the world of scientific journals? David Crotty, also at Scholarly Kitchen explains the legality of all this which involves Creative Commons licensing, not just ©.

We are, I suspect, stumbling towards a solution to all this. Now that we have the internet, Open Access together with an Article Processing Charge provided by the authors or their funding institutions, does show a way forward. In the old days when the only avenue to publication was through the printing press we had no alternative: in the modern on-line world we can’t allow gear-changing from that old world to obscure the purpose behind the entire system of research and publication. Barbara Fister seems to think so in this piece form Library Babel Fish. Naturally publishers are going to dodge and weave in an attempt to preserve their valuable properties — and as Rick Anderson recounts at Scholarly Kitchen they are doing so quite well. The very definitional difficulties addressed in yesterday’s post provide publishers with opportunities to appear to be doing good while at the same time maintaining the status quo. We need to straighten out our thinking. Is this another of those tragedy of the commons problems — worth nobody’s financial investment to cure? Publishers have an asset to protect and scholars and libraries cannot force change. If it’s not all available via Open Access the libraries still have to subscribe to the journal.


* The situation with books and the reproduction of chapters or sections from books is rather different. It is much more likely that an academic book is written with the hope of earning a bit of money for the author. Of course there may be no financial motivation, but only the author can know this, and thus publishers as agents for their authors, have an obligation to be vigilant in the protection of the copyright.