Scholars and activists stand in solidarity with shuttered research-sharing sites

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The system is ridiculous - that we do the research, write the manuscripts (even typeset them), and review them, all free of charge for the publishers - and then buy back the results. But it is very hard to change as a junior researcher. You need publications, and you need them in journals with high impact factor (yes, I know impact factor is a dumb measure unsuited to individual researchers). A really effective way to force change is already happening - that funding bodies demand that results they have funded are published open-access. It’s public money after all. This should be encouraged, supported, and campaigned for at every opportunity. Once open-access publishing becomes the norm (we’re rapidly getting there), then we can talk about publishing fees.


I think the letter makes the leap from “the public has a right to knowledge” to "the public has a right to knowledge for free." The one doesn’t imply the other, any more than a right to eat implies that all groceries should be free. Not to defend Elsevier in any way, but it’s obviously fair for whoever hosts the papers to charge something.

On the other hand, it seems like a donation-based model is making its way into the public consciousness. Sites like Kickstarter and Gofundme are becoming well-known, and even the MSM is reporting on the Sanders’ campaign’s success with small donations. It seems likely a site that hosts and indexes research papers could be run on a donation basis. Bandwidth is always getting cheaper, and only a few paid staff would be needed. I suppose Harvard could kick in a few thousand without even noticing.

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I think the letter makes the leap from “the public has a right to knowledge” to “the public has a right to knowledge for free.” The one doesn’t imply the other, any more than a right to eat implies that all groceries should be free. Not to defend Elsevier in any way, but it’s obviously fair for whoever hosts the papers to charge something.

I think that you’d be hard pressed to find any research that hasn’t been publicly subsidized in some way. Even if we don’t fund it the way we should, the academic world really is public infrastructure. Seeing some corporate types like Elsevier try to stake a claim to a public good like this ties my stomach in knots.

There’s plenty of money available to pay for this. It’s just a matter of agreeing that it’s something we should pay for.


In the UK, the REF process (which basically assesses the quality of university research) now has Open Access baked in - outputs must be made available in a OA repository shortly after acceptance in order to be admissible for the REF.

For many researchers this means a Green OA route - free deposit, usually in the institution’s own repository (though these can be searched en masse by services like CORE). The alternative is Gold OA, where the publisher is paid to make the article OA on publication - but this requires additional funding.

(Incidentally, Green and Gold are terrible terms for the two major OA models - it’s natural to assume that Gold is “best”, for example.)

Of course it’s not as straightforward as you might hope - publisher embargoes are par for the course, and the guidelines for REF exemptions are very wooly. But it’s something, and it’s at least putting OA on the agenda for academics, institutions and publishers. The publishers are often - through their own doing - cast as the pantomime villains, but it’s also common to find authors - particularly in the humanities - who are very sceptical of OA.

One of the really interesting side-effects of the Green / Gold models is the rise of “predatory publishers”, who exploit the notion that it’s normal to pay to be published by setting up ‘flotillas’ of shoddy journals - hundreds of cross-discipline titles - and basically charging hundreds for what amounts to web hosting of the submitted article. Even more fascinating stuff can be found in this article on emerging fraud models in the academic world.

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Yeah, the amazing thing is that the universities and other grant making organizations are still putting up with this. The law is a bit unsettled, but in the US, the employers of the academics who write up the research are probably the “authors” under the work made for hire provisions of the copyright act. My worry is that administrators will come to the conclusion not that the research should be open access but that THEY should be in charge of the pay-wall…

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I didn’t really read this article very closely but, at least in my field, the complaints have largely been about steep price increases for subscriptions and forced bundling of many journals. No one was really complaining when Elsevier was charging more modest fees and not trying to see how much they could squeeze out of a captive market.


And yes, rating an article by the impact factor of the journal it is published in is like assuming that you’re going to like Air Supply because you like Elvis and they’re both published by Sony/BMG.

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As an indicator of how bad things have gotten, I recently wrote a term paper about Albert A. Michelson. He died in 1931, so at least until Mickey Mouse is once again in danger of falling out of copyright Michelson’s work is in the public domain everywhere in the world. Despite this, most of the sites that have copies of his original work (some back to the 1880s) were paywalled, with charges in excess of $25 for PDFs of the original papers.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

FWIW, Harvard University’s library is old, extensive, and electronic. And Harvard has gone for OA in a big way. Their scanned copies of Michelson’s work are all freely downloadable.


But somehow that’s how we all get rated. One of my favourite journals has an impact factor < 1. So not many people read it (well, cite it). But the people who do read it are the right people, so it’s a good read, and a good place to publish. But try to explain that to my boss, who produces a list of all my groups publications, with impact factors, to pass to his boss…


One of this issues with Intellectual Property that I’ve always had is that Intellectual Property isn’t actually granting any additional rights to the property holder, the right it grants is control over an intangible idea or piece of information but that right is actually just the removing of the right of free access from everyone else rather then granting anything additional to them.

Having free unhindered access to ideas and information is the single most crucial thing for the advancement of humanity. Because we value money more then progress, and we live in a system where money is crucial for survival and most things desirable in life, we are sympathetic with the notion of stealing pieces of information and ideas from the public commons for the sole profit of a single individual is an okay compromise otherwise “how will the person investing time in these ideas and information be incentivized?”

This brings us to the second main issue, that person is seldom the one benefiting. Most Intellectual Property rights are transferred to Intellectual land barons who are raking in profits off of intellectual serfs who have to pay to work in what would normally be in their own fields, pay for seed, rent tools, sell their products in controlled markets where the barron takes another cut, etc. Capitalism has basically mimicked some of the worst points in human history in the intellectual space but this time the consequences is greater then just exploitation of the producers/creators, it is the advancement of human knowledge. We are already hitting intellectual gridlock, companies like apple and samsung who have vast resources have written statements about this and if they are having issues we know the individual and small business is already screwed.

Obviously we need to rethink our approach to intellectual property, but being humans things will have to get really bad before we course correct, that is kinda our way.


This is why I like to characterize IP issues as between COPYRIGHT owners and COPY owners. It’s not that I’m against the IDEA of intellectual property, but it should be seen as a balance between owners, not just owners and users.


I was under the impression that this is addressed in most academic contracts, and that academic publications are NOT the property of the university, but patents ARE (with a contractual percentage for the actual inventor). But that impression is based upon a contract I saw many years ago…

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A general condition of publicly funded research ought to be publicly shared research.


All it would take to put a big dent in El Severe are a few big journals and universities banding together into a legal superstructure of rights-holding. So, when a researcher publishes, they need to go through that legal structure instead of riding bareback through the publishing woods. The legal structure would be there to protect them and advocate for them, and hold a hammer over Elsevier’s head that if they don’t accede to the legal retainer of rights, they will find another publisher. Basically, Elsevier needs to have its knees chopped out from under it.


Depends on the university.

Cornell University Library has had a great series of “sticker shock” exhibits (the most recent is available as a pdf here), and as others have already said a large part of the problem is Elsevier jacking up prices significantly.

Libraries have been able to keep costs down with “big deals”, but those deals come with some pretty tangled strings. For one thing these are multi-year agreements and a library can’t cancel a particular journal covered by the “deal” unless they replace it with another one of equal or greater value. This sometimes means having to skip subscribing to a journal not published by Elsevier or other big deal publisher because all the available money is tied up in the “deal”.

I can also speak from experience about an Elsevier subscription that went up by 20% from one year to the next in spite of the library having a “big deal” that capped increases at 3%. Elsevier explained that because it was a newly added journal it was an exception to the price cap agreement. But there was no exception to the prohibition on cancelling.

These “big deals” also used to contain a secrecy clause that prevented institutions from sharing how much they were paying. At a 2010 NASIG conference a librarian from the University of Indiana said they were deleting these clauses from their contracts. And I have to wonder why the clauses were allowed in the first place. How could Elsevier prevent a publicly funded institution from sharing with the public how much was being spent on Elsevier journals?

These “big deals” can also be so complicated it’s impossible for librarians to keep up with what’s included and what isn’t because anyone who’s dealt with Elsevier customer service–or Springer or Wiley or Taylor & Francis–knows that the publishers themselves can’t keep track of what’s included and what isn’t. The time spent negotiating and maintaining these “big deals” is something I’d call a hidden cost, and it can be very big indeed.

And libraries may be able for now to maintain post-cancellation access through services like Portico and LOCKSS but I’m afraid that’s a future lawsuit just waiting to happen.

On the other hand I do think publishers like Elsevier provide a valuable service in hosting and archiving research. The question more and more institutions are going to have to start asking, though, is whether the cost is worth it.

TL;DR: It’s complicated.


It is probably important to distinguish between the assignment of copyright by an author after a work is created and how with a work made for hire, the “author” for copyright purposes is DIFFERENT from the creator of the work.

As a matter of law, the employer IS the author for copyright purposes of a work created by an employee as part of their job. The terms of a contract can’t change that*, although it certainly can (and in many academic cases, does) assign the copyright back to the writer. Who can, indeed, the assign the copyright in turn to the publisher.

I believe that whether academic works are created “within the course of their employment,” is a bit of unsettled law . My understanding is that the “academic exception” to WFH treatment is case law that predates the copyright act of 1976. And it was NOT included within the 1976 statute. So the question turns on employment law and the law of agency and I believe that it is a fairly open question.

*The situation is a little more complicated when you’re talking about works specially commissioned from non-employees…The the work must be one a few, specific categories and a clear contract statement that the work is intended to be a work for hire can indeed make it so.


I trained as a biochemist, work as a programmer and know academics in a variety of disciplines. My first reaction to debates about open access, and especially about Elsevier, is to expect that all research made by most academics should be made available to read without charge. That reaction was shaped by my initial background as a biochemist: all biochemical research needs funding - usually substantial amount amounts of money. However, not all academic publishing comes from work that required funding, save for a academic’s salary; this assumes, of course that it is an academic who is writing and submitting the paper, but that is a separate point.
These days, academics must publish in order to keep their jobs. It helps to publish in higher-impact journals. If the author pays, where does the author find the money to publish? An anthropologist might not have had much in the way of funding for a particular study. I was speaking the other day to a researcher in computational corpus linguistics. She was not a full-time academic, having moved into industry for a while. To keep her hand in, she was still publishing, still going to conferences. If that person wants to publish, if it must be to a pay-to-publish journal, they must now find the money. Open-access journals often allow the author to apply to have publication fees waived, but this is usually discretionary. In such a situation, the author must spend time pitching their paper: if they can persuade the OA journal that the paper will receive many hits, many citations, they stand a better chance. This has always the case, but I gather that it applies more strongly with this particular situation.

I want the cost of accessing academic papers to plummet - preferably, it should all be free and, particularly, free from DRM. However, getting there is more complicated than some people seem to realise.

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I don’t publish my papers on my blog. Instead, I post about them, so my readers can go get the full works if they are truly interested.

Typical post goes something like this:

My latest paper, titled Measurement of Acceleration Forces in Unusual Gravitational Fields has just been published. It’s a bit dense, but goes something like this: “Quotes entire paper”. If you are interested in reading the full paper, it can be purchased from [link to website where you can pay for it].