Access to Knowledge and the Banality of Evil

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 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.

2 thoughts on “Access to Knowledge and the Banality of Evil”

  1. I have some questions for you regarding this section of your commentary: “…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.”

    I understand and I agree with your frustration with all of this difficult-to-access scientific/scholarly knowledge: I think that there’s a greater potential for the average American citizen to be smarter if it were easier for him to access information. But who is going to pay for the services performed by these researchers if the current business model goes away? I ask this question assuming that the money paid goes back to where it started from and continues to fund these scholars.

    Are you proposing that these institutions just swallow their losses and work for the good of mankind or that some larger institution (state/federal government) absorb the cost? And if that’s what happens – taking the relief off of consumers and putting it back on the suppliers – what do you think the consequences would be for the scholars or consumers later down the road (i.e. cutbacks on funding for certain programs)? Or should it be privatized – should there be advertisements that “come with” these abstracts? Or perhaps it could be something just done by donations?

    I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and I apologize if you find this irrelevant. The topic of “who should pay for things deemed for the public good” is a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

  2. Thanks for your detailed comment. I think we may be talking about two slightly different things here: the research itself verses the distribution of the results.

    It is the distribution of results (primarily in the form of peer-reviewed research papers) that I am concerned with in this article. That is currently funded mostly by journal subscriptions. Such fees do not and have never funded the actual research programs.

    Research funding comes from a variety of sources, such as universities, philanthropic grants, technology transfer to industry, and yes, the government. In fact most of the basic research performed in the US is currently and has always been government funded (at least in the sciences.)

    >Are you proposing that these institutions just swallow their losses and work for the good of mankind?

    Essentially, yes, and essentially this is already what is happening. Research is a well known public good in the technical, economics sense: knowledge something that everybody benefits from, but no one can exclude others from taking advantage of. Public goods end up being under-produced in an unfettered market. Education, health care, environmental stewardship, and defense are other examples of public goods that are not properly produced in a pure private market situation. There are many ways to fund these things.

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