Yesterday I received a semi-spam e-mail from Royal Society Publishing, publisher of Biology Letters and Philosophical Transactions, saying that all of their articles that are more than 70 years old are now freely accessible. In itself, this is a laudable move, of course. And you could say it's an important step in the more general shift towards an open access model of academic publishing (i.e., a model were all academic papers are freely accessible for everyone). But I couldn't help being a little skeptical, particularly after having read this note, attached to a torrent, which I came across a few months back (a torrent is a file that serves as a 'handle' for downloading more and larger files). The Pirate Bay is not a place were you would normally expect to encounter political statements, but this torrent of 18,592 papers, all published prior to 1923, from the archive of the Philosophical Transactions is accompanied by a text that conveys many of the same frustrations that I feel when it comes to academic publishing.
First, the uploader (who calls himself Greg Maxwell, which kind of sounds like a real name) explains that the part of the archive that the Royal Society has so valiantly decided to make freely available, was largely, if not entirely in the public domain to begin with. Copyright simply expires after some time. As the uploader writes (this was before the Royal Society opened up their archive):
"The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind, and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each--for one month's viewing, by one person, on one computer. It's a steal. From you."
So, to me, it seems that Royal Society Publishing had little choice but to open up their archive (perhaps the torrent has played some small part in this too). It's still good that they did, even if they had to, don't get me wrong. But to describe it as "part of the Royal Society's ongoing commitment to open access in scientific publishing", well...
The uploader also quite eloquently describes the regular and, quite frankly, twisted model of academic publishing. It's a ridiculous, but common practice for researchers to sign away copyright to their papers to publishers without charge. Publishers do not return the favor and charge universities heavily for subscriptions to their academic journals. It's quite amazing when you think about it: Journals are edited by senior scientists, who are generally not paid for their service. Articles are peer-reviewed by scientists, who are not paid for this. And articles are written by scientists who, again, are not paid for this. So academic publishers like Elsevier, Springer, Royal Society Publishing, and Nature Publishing Group turn a huge profit from the volunteer work of scientists: From the perspective of academic publishers, scientists work for free (they are paid through public funding though!) and are charged for their own work. You just got to love that business model.
Or, in the words of the uploader:
"Academic publishing is an odd system: the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they're just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers.
And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals, but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.
As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The "publish or perish" pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia."
I couldn't agree more. But, hey, the opening of the Royal Society's archive is a good start, even if not entirely motivated by idealism.