Front Lines of the Open Access Fight: Colombian Student's Prosecution Highlights the Need for Fundamental Policy Reforms
Scientific progress relies upon the exchange of ideas and research. The Internet is the most powerful network the world has ever seen, with the capability to enable this exchange at an unprecedented speed and scale. But outmoded policies and practices continue to present massive barriers that collectively stifle that potential. Many major online research databases are kept under lock and key by publishers, making them extremely expensive to access. Given the subscription model for these repositories, most people cannot afford to pay the fees to read or cite to existing research, let alone know what research and studies have already been published.
Circumventing these barriers can lead to extreme consequences. Aaron Swartz was one of the strongest voices leading the open access movement, and he faced up to 35 years in prison for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), for accessing the JSTOR research database and downloading copies of academic articles.
Now Diego Gomez, the Colombian graduate student who faces imprisonment for sharing another researcher's thesis online, is on the front lines of this fight. His story is only one of countless many, but it highlights the problems facing students and academics who are simply trying to access works to further their studies.
It might seem as though the payments are being passed along to academics as compensation for their work, or that they are necessary to cover the costs involved in editing and publishing their research. Yet this is often not the case. Publishers normally give none of the subscription fees to the researchers themselves. Academics generally conduct the research, writing, and peer review processes without compensation from the publishers. Then, still without compensation, those academics usually assign the copyright over their article to the journal, on terms so strict that they can prevent even the authors themselves from making copies of their own articles.
That makes this problem especially frustrating. The high costs of accessing journals is unrelated to funding the research in the first place. Publishers are middlemen who enact high paywalls, making it expensive for academics to access their peers' research for their own work. But how do they get away with this? It has to do with the culture around academic publishing. Some journals are considered prestigious. For academics, that prestige can mean their research is more highly regarded, which can help advance their career in the field. Unfortunately, this means that their work can only be read by those who can afford to pay for subscriptions, or more commonly, who are affiliated with a university or institution that provides access to them.
The Open Access Movement: Fighting for Free and Easy Access to Knowledge
The open access movement is a fight for the continued progress of knowledge, science, and culture, by recognizing the intrinsic importance of enabling scholarly works to be shared widely, cheaply, and easily. There are two basic goals for open access advocates: first, to make research freely available online without cost, through shared digital repositories or open access journals. Second, to make research reusable by promoting the use of open licenses—ensuring that the public can not only read existing works, but can also pick apart the research and build upon it. In many parts of the world, a major policy goal is to ensure that publicly funded research becomes publicly accessible research. It is founded on the straightforward concept that if the public is already paying for research through their tax dollars, they have a right to see and share what they have paid for. In the US, research that has been funded by government grants from certain major government agencies must be published in open access repositories, like PubMed Central. EFF, along with groups like Creative Commons, SPARC, the Open Knowledge Foundation, and many others, are leading these calls for open access policy reforms.
How Copyright and Other Related Laws Stifle Open Access
It's clear that where it's possible—through policy or individual choices by academics—robust open access is the best way for research to advance the goals of academia. But where individuals work towards those goals in the absence of formal policies, they have faced truly draconian penalties. That's because our current copyright system is a poor fit for many academics. Where a reasonable copyright policy should reflect the economic interests of creators and researchers, instead our laws are shaped instead by the lobbying of special interests such as book publishers, movie studios, and music labels, which push for extreme restrictions on how content can be shared and used. Academics, scientists, and other professionals tend to benefit little from copyright restrictions. And yet they also need to be able to access other new, cutting edge research to read relevant studies and understand what others are doing in the field. Heightened criminalization of copyright, the lack of strong legal safeguards for publicly beneficial and personal uses, and excessive, long copyright terms all fly in the face of these academic goals. The massive penalties that Gomez faces are a prime example. The demands of the copyright industries in the Colombia-US free trade agreement led to extreme policy language in the agreement, which then led Colombia to enact new, harsher criminal sanctions over "unauthorized" sharing and uses of copyrighted works. In the midst of this experience, Gomez has brought his story to light in hopes of sparking debate and bringing about policy reform. In a recent open letter, he wrote [translated from Spanish]:
I regret that my actions in good faith I can have an impact on my life plan, just because I acted against the barriers to knowledge. [...] From this painful experience I have learned that knowledge really have invisible barriers, main reason now I am committed to activism in favor of open access, to promote the results of scientific research are public and open for everyone's benefit through open access policy.
The inability to readily access important research is an issue that affects us all. Outdated policies and practices must be reformed until we can unleash the Internet's potential to enable free and open access to research and promote the progress of science. ~