January 15, 2014 | By Adi Kamdar

In the Open Access Fight, Big Publishers Are the Biggest Hurdle

In the week leading up the two-year anniversary of the SOPA blackout protests, EFF and others are talking about key principles that should guide copyright policy. Every day, we'll take on a different piece, exploring what’s at stake and and what we need to do to make sure the law promotes creativity and innovation. We've put together a page where you can read and endorse the principles yourself. Let's send a message to DC, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Brussels, and wherever else folks are making new copyright rules: We're from the Internet, and we're here to help.

Sometime it's hard to believe that we are still arguing about open access to publicly funded research. The issue is as clear as it gets: we paid for the research; most researchers are devoted, by nature and profession, to sharing their work; and the public benefits of open access can be tremendous. So perhaps the right question is, why in the world don't we already have free and open access to publicly funded research, including the ability to not just read but reuse such works?

The answer is equally obvious: the lack of open access is a result of strident opposition by giant academic publishers who treat this issue as struggle for survival. And it is—especially if they will not give up their legacy business models that, in the current climate, position them more as burdensome middlemen and copyright bullies than valuable contributors to the progress of science.

Case in point: A month ago, one such giant academic publisher, Reed Elsevier, sent thousands of takedown notices to researchers, universities, and scholarly websites. These sites were hosting the researchers' own works—what's known as self-archiving or "Green Open Access"—yet technically the articles' copyrights belonged to the publishing giant. (This is because many publishers force researchers to relinquish and assign all copyrights to their works as the price of publishing those works. Because publication is the key to survival in the academic context, the pressure to pay that price is enormous.) While Green Open Access is a tried and true practice with no demonstrable harm to any publishing market, Reed Elsevier nonetheless decided it was time to brandish the mighty stick of copyright and bring it straight down on the academics' heads. That's right: the publishing house chose to make enemies of those very same people who are not only its content providers, but also its clientele.

As Dr. Michael Taylor so eloquently put it:

In essence, this move is an admission of defeat. It's a classic last-throw-of-the-dice manoeuvre. It signals a recognition from Elsevier that they simply aren't going to be able to compete with actual publishers in the 21st century. They're burning the house down on their way out. They're asset-stripping academia.

Dr. Taylor may be right that Reed Elsevier's move was an admission of defeat, but the giant publishers won't go down (or fully embrace new business models) without a fight. They're pushing for horrible legislation and actively lobbying against the good. They're proposing their own deceptive solutions that don't actually give researchers what they want and ensure that publishers retain the ability to restrict meaningful access to research. They have attempted to maintain a publishing status quo that no longer makes sense, for researchers or the public.  

Their main weapon is copyright. Once a publisher owns the rights to a scholarly work, it has broad powers to control how it is shared—just as Reed Elsevier is trying to do. Universities have difficulties hosting their scholars' works, and academics feel less comfortable sending their papers to struggling students or researchers halfway around the world. Really powerful, easily searchable, freely accessible databases of cutting-edge research don't get built. Library budgets are crippled by exorbitant subscription costs. The list goes on.

Part of the problem is copyright itself. The assumptions behind the law just don't square well with basic tents of academic life. Researchers don't need copyright as an incentive to publish—doing research and sharing their findings is their profession. Locking up research behind paywalls helps no one but the publishers themselves.

Luckily, advocates for open access and publishing reform are pushing back hard to secure wide access to publicly funded research. And on the national, state, university, and individual levels, we are making real progress. Big Publishing may have big pockets, but individuals like you can help convince lawmakers to support open access to research. Take action today.


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