I am officially a cranky academic curmudgeon. And I don’t even have tenure yet!
I say this because I have become the crotchety Mr. Wilson on Twitter expressing skepticism about moving from our current system of academic publishing to an open access system.
Let me state this clearly for the record: I support efforts to move to open access scientific publication. That said, I also worry about the logistical and distributive consequences (potentially unintended) of doing so very quickly. Open access is a noble and moral goal. But it also needs to become a practical reality. As we progress from our current system to a new one, I am worried that the process might inadvertently exacerbate inequalities in academia. For these reasons, I find it especially important to have a discussion using evidence to establish the best way to move from where we are to where we want to be.
I find polemics on the topic difficult to digest at this point. As a result, I found Ryan Merkley’s Wired essay about Sci Hub’s quest to free gated information by using illegal passwords and using them to access gated academic journal publications. The article is a string of mostly specious arguments ending with a call to arms to let Sci Hub’s founder off the hook for breaking the law. Let’s review them one by one:Argument 1: It’s not stealing. Merkley’s first defense of Sci Hub is that it’s okay to steal content because it’s not really stealing (this argument is embedded in the url stub for the article: http://www.wired.com/2016/04/stealing-publicly-funded-research-isnt-stealing). He writes:
Sci-Hub is obviously committing copyright infringement, and publishers are calling on open access advocates to denounce the site. But saying that Sci-Hub is about copyright infringement is like saying the Boston Tea Party was about late-night vandalism.
At least he acknowledges that Sci Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan broke laws. Merkley might not agree with those laws, but those laws are, nonetheless, installed by the democratic process. He later cites Elbakyan’s “civil disobedience.” Civil disobedience means accepting the sanctions of the punishment to call attention to the injustice caused by unjust laws. I don’t think that Merkley meant to be ironic in highlighting that Elbakyan and Sci Hub contributors are, in fact, undermining the very Constitution and system of laws set up as a consequence of the (original) Tea Party. The response should be to change the unjust law, not continue to celebrate breaking the law (unless, of course, you would be willing to let someone get away with arguing that Kim Davis shouldn’t face any repercussions for her actions).
This does not mean that I agree with said laws. Copyright laws in the U.S. and abroad are terrible (but especially the U.S., where it truly is a Mickey Mouse operation). Publishers take advantage of monopoly rents that place their profits over the public good. But there is a means to address that injustice: change the law. I am opposed to vigilante justice and the moral certitude that comes when one group explicitly declares that it is okay to ignore laws.
Argument 2. Academic publishing is outdated. Having established that it’s okay to break laws he doesn’t like, Merkley proceeds to discuss why it’s okay to break said laws. Basically, we have an outdated, byzantine system so we should blow it up. Because freedom.
If it wasn’t so well-established, the traditional model of academic publishing would be considered scandalous. Every year, hundreds of billions in research and data are funded, in whole or in part, with public dollars. We do this because we believe that knowledge is for the public good, but the public gets very little access to the fruits of its investment.
I’ll give Merkley this: the system is not one I would design from scratch now. Publishing is byzantine, backwards and serves oligarchs. It must be shocking to Merkley that a modern system becomes bureaucratic, too bad he can’t turn anywhere to understand the phenomenon. Maybe we should all follow a charismatic leader like Elbakyan to lead us away from this byzantine bureaucracy. That never ends badly.
Argument 3. Academic publishing is immoral because it relies on unpaid labor. Merkley argues:
Researchers aren’t paid by publishers for their research as it’s sold piece-by-piece or by subscription through academic journals. The reviewers who evaluate the research aren’t paid either.
Hear, hear! I completely agree.
Again, the problem is that there are solutions to this problem. Those who perform uncompensated labor could join tens of thousands of others and stop doing that labor. Universities could refuse to remunerate editors and editorial staff on behalf of publishers. Academic societies, which publish the most prestigious journals in many fields, could require that reviewers and editors be paid as part of their contract negotiations with publishers. All of these would actually help those who provide labor to be paid, which — far as I can tell — Sci Hub is not doing unless you count the provision of stolen goods to users.
Argument 4. And I quote: “It’s in our nature to share, and in a crisis, it’s easier to act on that impulse.” Huh?
Argument 5. But, Einstein! Seemingly without irony, Merkley actually invokes Einstein:
Some argue that those at universities already have access, but who knows where the next discovery will come from? Einstein was a patent clerk, not an academic elite, and 100 years later we’re still proving his theories to be true—even the ones he thought to be wrong.
Leaving aside the fact that, according to Wikipedia, was a patent clerk while working on his Ph.D. and started working as a lecturer in his twenties, this argument is patently absurd. If I had to guess where the next discovery would come from, odds definitely favor a university. Because probability.
Argument 6. There’s no “I” in “team”. Merkley’s next argument makes sense to me:
Public investment is a powerful and vital collective act—something we do together that we could never do individually.
He then goes on to cite how blur removal technology developed by NASA was used by researchers to improve mammogram technology. Sounds great! I wanted to see what it looked like to have this data available to the public that could be used right away. Until I found out some of it was…behind paywalls.
Argument 7. Capitalist pigs. Next, Merkley turns to deriding the profit motives of companies rent-seeking to maximize profits:
When we push for more open access, publishers’ response is to charge the researchers to publish their own work. Publishers argue that they add significant value through peer review, editing, and distribution, and the prestige of their storied journals offers credibility…In exchange, publishers claim the authors’ copyrights, and collect significant profit margins, sometimes as much as 30 percent.
Practices like journal bundling and pay-to-publish are shady. But those practices are those of profit-maximizing capitalists. To criticize one industry of acting immorally inside of a larger economic system is un-sociological; to call for the end to capitalism seems like howling at the moon. If he’s a dreamer looking to move to a less capitalist economy, sign me up! I’m happy to howl at the moon. I’m also happy to think of alternative methods to serve the public good inside of our current system, especially with a growing number of corporations following such models. I would support legislation to make rent-seeking — and its attendant shadiness — harder. We need to reform our entire copyright system. We need to say…
Argument 8. …make a whole new model.
We need to change the model, not just tweak around the edges. An alternative system, where all publicly-funded research is required to be shared under a permissive license, would allow authors to unlock their content and data for re-use with a global audience, and co-operate in new discoveries and analysis.
Here I can totally get on board with Merkley. One slight problem though: what about all of the research that isn’t publicly funded? Sci Hub doesn’t discriminate to find, say, articles that indicate in the acknowledgements that the researchers received federal funds. Instead, they distribute all of it regardless of public funding. The federal government didn’t actually pay for a lot of the research included in the bundle. This undermines the premise of argument that those the U.S. taxpayers among us “pay to read research we fund.” It makes sense why he would make that argument though; arguing that we “pay to read research that the tuition money of college students funds” doesn’t have quite the same rhetorical ring to it.
Argument 9. Elitism! This is a story about academics and the internet, so somewhere we had to have our requisite argument about elitist gatekeepers. Merkley doesn’t disappoint:
If the Web has achieved anything, it’s that it’s eliminated the need for gatekeepers, and allowed creators—all of us—to engage directly without intermediaries, and to be accountable directly to each other.
Wait until oil companies jump on board to rail against gatekeepers on climate science, or pharmaceutical companies do so against gatekeepers on medical research, or payday lenders against economic research. I’m sure that will help science. At least now they have to take effort to pay off researchers.
Argument 10. Incremental progress is too slow. Perhaps Merkley is a Sanders supporter because nothing but drastic change will suffice (comments about the oil industry make me think he’s not a Trump supporter):
The US government has moved towards more open access, but has also at times
capitulated to publishers by giving them embargo periods before research can be made available and allowing research to be free to read, but not open to use—denying the access necessary for text and data mining.
The U.S. government moved in the right direction, but didn’t want to upend an entire system without considering the unintended consequences? Sellouts! Establishment shills! Never mind that, if the real concern is just about science progressing, then scientists usually own the copyright to preprints which contain most of the science. A better target might be universities to make it part of faculty policies to deposit preprints to permanent repositories. But then Merkley can’t take on the capitalist pigs like in his concluding cri de coeur:
Think of the the potential of students, citizen scientists, educators, researchers,
corporations, non-profits, and more all working together on a grand global challenge
that would benefit all of us for generations.
Oh, wait. We should do all of this to help “corporations…benefit us all”? We need to rid the world of the scourge of capitalist swine like profit-seeking publishers to support profit-seeking corporations in other sectors? The sector most likely to benefit from this free flow of information — especially given Merkley’s focus on cancer research — comprise pharmaceutical and medical device companies, you know, paragons of public interest.
You really should read the whole thing. I would post it all here except that the material on Wired “may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast.”