Open access: All human knowledge is there—so why can’t everybody access it?

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Open access: All human knowledge is there—so why can’t everybody access it?


I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect.

-Anthony Panizzi, principal librarian of the British Museum, 1836

“The roadblock to achieving open access is not simply that every creation is automatically covered by copyright, although that fact does complicate matters. Textual works that are chiefly designed to convey knowledge are different in important ways from those mainly created for entertainment—novels, plays, poems, etc. Factual productions are generally written by academics and researchers as a way of disseminating their discoveries or ideas. They are not, primarily, written to gain money, unlike novels and other works of entertainment.

The creators of factual works are typically paid through recognition by their peers and (sometimes) the wider public, which helps to advance their careers and ultimately leads to indirect financial rewards such as more ready access to grants and a higher salary.

For years, publishers have been the intermediaries in this process. Outside of small academic presses, a fact-focused book will be handled the same as any other. But research-focused journals are a different thing entirely. Researchers are not paid when their papers appear in academic journals, but they are generally expected to pay fees to handle some of the costs of publication. They also hand over their copyright to publishers, who thereafter act as if they had created it.

[. . . ] Academic publishing is inherently monopolistic: if you want to read a particular paper, you cannot shop around to find the cheapest publisher—there is only one. That’s a result of the widespread acceptance of one of the so-called “Ingelfinger rules,” which prohibits authors from submitting their manuscript to more than one journal.

The skewed nature of power in this industry is demonstrated by the fact that the scientific publishing divisions of leading players like Elsevier and Springer consistently achieve profit margins between 30 percent and 40 percent—levels that are rare in any other industry. The sums involved are large: annual revenues generated from English-language scientific, technical, and medical journal publishing worldwide were about $9.4bn (£6.4bn) in 2011.

These high prices exact a cost. In 2012, Harvard University sent out a memo to its teaching and research staff warning them that it could no longer afford the exorbitant prices of academic journals. It said that charges for online access to articles from two major publishers had gone up by 145 percent over the past six years, and some journals were costing as much as $40,000 (£27,000) annually. If Harvard struggles with what has come to be called the “serials crisis,” it can be imagined what the situation is like for less well-funded institutions.”

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