It pisses me off that there is a huge body of very important information that most people can’t get at. I’m not talking about books, the poor paper things, but the world’s academic and scientific journals, which are already online.
Most people don’t even know that the world’s academic journals exist, but this is the master record, the huge source that all those science blogs and mis-representative popular articles draw from. These research journals are the collective output of every professional researcher in the world, in all subjects — only you’re not allowed to read them.
If you don’t believe me, go to scholar.google.com and type the name of your favorite object of curiosity. Then click through. Chances are you’ll get an abstract, but not more, not for free. The international university community has access to the full text, but if you as a member of the public wish to read an article in the latest issue of Science, Nature, The Physical Review or The Journal of Conflict Resolution, or thousands of others, you have to actually physically go to the nearest major university library and hope that they have an access policy for the general public, then look through the paper stacks… wow.
The foremost discoveries of our age, in every field, are locked up by a small number of scientific publishers, latched fast by copyright.
Basically, this is because it is the business model of academic publishers to charge for access. This made sense, way back when. Handling the time-consuming, detail-oriented process of peer review, then printing up those thick journals on archival paper and distributing them world-wide is an expensive process. In the era of physical libraries, it seemed reasonable to ask interested parties to journey to their nearest university to find a copy. Because each university serves a large community, these subscriptions are expensive — tens of thousands of dollars per year, for each of thousands of journal titles. When academic publishers started moving their journals online, instead of changing their business model they chose to artificially limit access.
At a biology conference last week I attended a discussion mediated by a woman from the journal Nature. She wished to explore the concept of copyright in science. She wanted to have a discussion about whether it would make more sense for the paper author, the university, or the journal to retain copyright. She was looking for a new business model. Bravo.
Except she missed the point. This is not the MP3 war all over again. You can make a really good case for rights management for artists on the assumption that they have to get paid at some point during the creation and distribution of their work. Even if musicians choose distribute their music for free, it’s still reasonable to consider it theirs in the sense that no one can use their song in a car commercial without permission. Copyright on a song still makes sense in the modern era, but academic and scientific research is not at all like music production. To begin with, it would be really, really hard to fund your research through sales of the resulting technical papers! All this research is also presumably performed for the benefit of all humanity, hence it actually becomes more valuable as it is redistributed.
My argument is that copyright as we understand it simply does not apply to communications of academic research. Copyright is a construction designed to forward the broader interests of society by providing incentives for creation, but it assumes that a) the creators can make some sort of living from selling their product and b) no real harm comes to humanity if those without money are denied access. Given that these assumptions are completely wrong for academic and scientific research, copyright is a total lose for scholarship.
This is the argument I made to the editor from Nature.
“It costs money to run a journal,” she pointed out. She’s right. It’s a lot of work to edit a peer-reviewed publication.
“The Public Library of Science manages to fund itself on page fees and philanthropic grants,” I replied. PLOS is a young open-access journal publisher, already well established with several high-profile bio and medical titles. They’re my heroes, an existence proof of the viability of open publishing. (I was handing out home-made “I heart PLOS” stickers at the conference. Nature Girl politely declined to wear one.)
“Yes, and we’re moving toward that model,” she said, “But who should control access to the redistribution rights? For example, if someone takes a paper and republishes it in a book and sells the book, should the author get a cut?”
“What do you think would be best for science?” I asked.
“Well, I think that we at Nature have always been devoted to the scientific community…”
“No, really, what do you think is best?”
She seemed suddenly confused. “You mean me, as a person?”
“Yes. What do you think is actually best for humanity here?”
“I don’t know.”
I encouraged her to think about it.