A lot of what we talk about here is how the Internet has brought the traditional companies that trade in copyrights (like the film, music, and publishing industries) to their knees. This is largely because a number of functions these companies controlled and charged monopoly prices for (like duplication and distribution) are now uncontrollable and egalitarian. The industries’ responses have been to sue the bejesus out of people, to lean on the government to cede control of the Internet to them, to corrupt the copyright laws, and to pressure the rest of the world to join into their freedom-killing and innovation-stifling agenda designed only to protect business models that could not survive otherwise.
An interesting side battle in all this involves academic publishers. For a significant category of scholarly works, the traditional model has gone something like this: Scholars at universities create works that are submitted to publishers, which engage in some sort of “peer-review” process to determine which works shall be awarded the “prize” of publication. The scholars aren’t paid, but rather readily submit their works for free to these journals because publication has always been vital to getting academic tenure (“publish or perish”) and to other types of professional advancement. The publishers then sell these journals, which typically have limited print runs and incredibly high prices, to libraries at academic institutions. The publishers keep all the money.
For all sorts of reasons, including not only the alternatives now provided by the Internet, but also the eroding economics and public financial support of higher education, a disappearing middle class, etc. etc. etc. (think “occupy”), the wheels are falling off this rather strange model.
Publishers are getting greedy, or shall we say greedier. Prices for these journals are sky-rocketing, and the prices for e-versions of the books are kept artificially high to avoid “cannibalizing” the market for physical books. Scholars are finally saying “enough” to simply handing over works, which represent years of their lives, their expertise, and their blood, sweat and tears, to the academic publishing units of massive multinational corporations. And the questionable symbiotic link between the publishers and the academic institutions is breaking down. At the front lines of this fight are the most courageous, intrepid, industrious, forward-thinking, brilliant, and, yes, sexy individuals in all of academia: the librarians.
The librarians are saying no to the absurdly inflated prices of these journals and the particularly heinous publisher practice of bundling multiple journals together, so libraries are forced to buy three overpriced journals it doesn’t want or need in order to get the one or two that it does. University libraries simply can’t afford these obscure titles any more.
What is happening, and quickly, is that librarians and scholars are creating open-source web-based journals with their own peer-review standards. From the scholars’ perspective, if they are going to be giving their work away anyway, doesn’t it make more sense for the works to be ultimately given away to anyone who wants to read them, rather than sequestered in expensive journals on library shelves and behind insanely expensive digital paywalls? Of course it does.
The leadership of academic institutions are starting to take notice, too. Why should a university pay scholars nice salaries to create content that the university then has to pay for again in the form of an overpriced journal? Isn’t paying for the research once more than enough? And it’s dawning on the powers-that-be that the price of outsourcing criteria central to tenure decisions by supporting the bloated academic publishing industry just ain’t worth it anymore.
And finally, the public is waking up. There is a movement afloat to require all publicly funded research to be made available to the public. I mean, pretty basic, no? This includes not just academic research but funded scientific work done by corporations; so much government-funded research ends up largely inaccessible, fenced in by scientific/academic publishers or held in secrecy by private corporations. This inaccessibility has been traditionally justified by either claiming researchers need some extra incentive to profit from research they’ve already been paid to do, or that publishers need an incentive to “disseminate” the work. The second argument has been rendered absurd by the Internet. And the first has been largely disproven by a pilot public access policy administered by the National Institutes of Health, which found that sharing research findings with the public does not stifle research, it actually encourages more research. Duh!
You can help push this open-access policy to all publicly funded research by signing the petition at the White House’s “We the People” page at wh.gov/6TH. This site’s functionality is surprisingly sucky, but I found I could get in by using a Firefox browser. Go vote for the future.