Scientist Explains Why Putting Research Behind A Paywall Is Immoral

from the against-the-basic-principles-of-academic-research dept

There’s been plenty of debate recently over “open access” to research and the morality of locking it up behind a paywall. Some have been arguing that Aaron Swartz’s apparent plan to release JSTOR research papers (a plan that was never confirmed anywhere that I’ve seen other than random speculation) was somehow immoral. And, of course, there have been various battles over the years with various journals that lock up research. Researcher Mike Taylor, over at the Guardian is now making the case that if anything is immoral it’s locking up any academic research behind a paywall:

If you are a scientist, your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. And if you bring new knowledge into the world, it’s immoral to hide it. I heartily wish I’d never done it, and I won’t do it again.

He goes on to respond to a number of possible responses as to why it’s okay to put your research behind a paywall, dismantling each one. One key one is the claim by many that paywalls on journals are necessary to fund scholarship:

No. This is the tail wagging the dog. The purpose of a scholarly society is to promote scholarship, which is best done by making that scholarship available. A society that cares more about preserving its own budget than about the field it supposedly supports has lost its way. Societies need to find other ways to fund their activities. And yes, I am talking to you, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (my own field’s society). You cannot support the science of vertebrate palaeontology by taking science and hiding it where most people can’t see it.

Somewhere along the way, things got flipped and people seemed to forget the true purpose of scholarship (and the fact that scholarship — perhaps even more than other areas — relies on the ability to build off of the work of those who came before). In the end, and this is a key point, if you’re locking up your scientific research, you’re doing science wrong:

No, no, no. Dammit, we’re scientists. Our job is to make knowledge. If we make it, then brick it up behind a wall, we’re wasting our time and our funders’ money – which ultimately means we’re squandering the world’s wealth.

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Comments on “Scientist Explains Why Putting Research Behind A Paywall Is Immoral”

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Ninja (profile) says:

the fact that scholarship — perhaps even more than other areas — relies on the ability to build off of the work of those who came before

Almost everything relies on prior art at some point during its creation even if marginally. What we are doing today is simply blocking innovation by restricting access to culture. We did not have a boom in science and progress till knowledge became accessible and widely copied (printing press, anyone?). Heck, if memory serves Gauss would have never became famous if he didn’t find some1 that gave him access to knowledge.

Imagine if ancient musicians who came up with the musical notes and score system (written music) had locked it up. Or if Thomas Edison could REALLY charge Hollywood earlier in its beginnings…

Jay (profile) says:

Hold it

But aren’t we looking at this a little oddly?

If we are trying to free up information and close the information dissymetry that has occurred in our society, how are we supposed to stop an opportunist from locking up information they don’t want shared?

The government has state secrets privileges that run counter to democratic principles. Corporations have bureaucracy that prevents the workers from understanding the workings at the top. And the public isn’t given all information. Instead, we punish the ones that print it or muckrake to find out.

So how do you avoid a scientist’s work being locked up in any paywall when you have to run up against IP privileges, corporate bureaucracy and governmental bureaucracy?

Lowestofthekeys (profile) says:

Re: Hold it

“The government has state secrets privileges that run counter to democratic principles. Corporations have bureaucracy that prevents the workers from understanding the workings at the top. And the public isn’t given all information. Instead, we punish the ones that print it or muckrake to find out.”

The needs of the few over the needs of the many.

A sad, sad situation.

Bob says:

Re: Re: Hold it

The needs of the few over the needs of the many.

Reasoning and the human brain doesn’t work the way we thought it did:

Manufacturing consent

Most have no clue what’s really going on in the world… the elites are afraid of political awakening.

This (mass surveillance) by the NSA and abuse by law enforcement is just more part and parcel of state suppression of dissent against corporate interests. They’re worried that the more people are going to wake up and corporate centers like the US and canada may be among those who also awaken. See this vid with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former United States National Security Advisor.

Brezinski at a press conference–QCYY

The real news:

Look at the following graphs:

IMGUR link –

And then…

WIKILEAKS: U.S. Fought To Lower Minimum Wage In Haiti So Hanes And Levis Would Stay Cheap

Free markets?

“We now live in two Americas. One—now the minority—functions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other—the majority—is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority—which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected—presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this “other America,” serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society.

In the tradition of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges navigates this culture—attending WWF contests, the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, and Ivy League graduation ceremonies—to expose an age of terrifying decline and heightened self-delusion.”

Important history:

Anonymous Coward says:

His statements are very idealistic; currently if scientist’s don’t publish their work in journals they can forget about getting funding or academic placements, expensive journals have more prestige and open more opportunities.

Publish or perish.

Hopefully there will be more movement towards open-access journals.

Scientist btw; I also hate journals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think the move is already well underway. It is mostly a question of which area you are researching in and what the national laws are in the areas where “the elite” of your field live. Genetic research has been extremely open about data-sharing which is amazing and physics is moving in the same direction with CERN and the way they are becoming more international.

There is a long way to go, but I am pretty certain that open access reservoirs will be able to catch a very large amount of the publications. Paywalled content has to get cheaper to compete if they want any business and for them to get enough content they better offer a good fee for the researchers publishing there. I do not doubt that paywalled will live on, but it is a question of the few rather than the many wanting it.

Mike Taylor (profile) says:

Re: I didn't say not to publish in journals

[I am the author of the original article]

Please do go back and check what I wrote in the Guardian! I didn’t at all say that we shouldn’t publish in journals, but that we should publish in open access journals. There are plenty of these around now — over 8000 are listed at — and lots of them are prestigious within their fields.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mike Taylor’s article is a remarkably poorly written, belligerent piece. If his scholarship is on par with his article, I doubt very much that he’s a particularly respected researcher in his field.

Not every scientific field or discipline has reputable open access journals. Like it or not, journal reputations and impact factors matter, potentially for employment/funding and for readership. A given field or discipline may have anywhere from just a few journals to hundreds. The more journals there are, the more picky one has to be with which ones to read. Journals with better reputations get more readers within the field, regardless of whether they’re paywalled or not. Make no mistake, scientists are just as human as anyone else, and the overwhelming majority will take the lazy way out and read what they know to be reputable rather than waste time looking for a diamond that may or may not be in a pile of dung.

And therein lies a critical flaw with Taylor’s piece — articles are only useful if they are read, only judged on their merits if colleagues show up to judge them at all. It’s a steep cost when publishing in an open journal means colleagues don’t read it, don’t cite it, and don’t build upon it. Joe Sixpack mentioning it on his blog doesn’t make up for that unless Joe happens to be extremely influential with key individuals in the field. I’ve never seen it happen.

All other things being equal, open access is preferable. But until those other things get closer to equal, I do not expect that open access is going to supplant publishers across the board.

Mike Taylor (profile) says:

Re: Yes, every scientific field has reputable open access journals

For one thing, PLOS ONE (with a very respectable impact factor of 4.411 for those who care about such things) covers all of science. If you’ve written a scientific paper you can submit it there; and if it’s scientifically sound it will be published (irrespective of whether or not it seems likely to be “significant”, or to say what we really mean by that, “fashionable”). If you don’t have institutional funding to pay the article processing charge, they will give a no-questions-asked waiver — as they have done with my colleagues in the past.

Since I covered all this in the article, I wonder whether maybe the issue here isn’t that it’s “a remarkably poorly written, belligerent piece”, but that you read it remarkably poorly and beligerently?

BTW., I probably shouldn’t respond to the ad hominem part of this comment, but anyone who also wonder whether I’m a particularly respected researcher in my field (palaeontology): no, I’m not. I am a very ordinary researcher, putting out a paper or two each year, and naming the occasional new dinosaur. My papers are solid but not groundbreaking. Anyone who’d like to judge for themsleves can read them as on my website (where they are all, of course, freely available).

Gazaro (profile) says:

The public pays for the research and owns it as of right

Don’t forget most public research is 100% funded by the taxpayer and therefore should be available as of right. Even private research entities receive government grants.. why should taxpayers have to pay up front for work to be undertaken and then be told… “we’re keeping it for us”… want to know what we found using your money… “Pay again”. Really !

AdamBv1 (profile) says:

Funny, I brought this up just yesterday when we were talking about the uselessness of the administrations We the People petitions.
This one got over double the required signatures over half a year ago and yet there has been no response.

There really is no reason that publicly funded researched should not be accessible to the general public.

NAProtector says:


Magicians and entertainers hide the secrets to their tricks because: one; the appeal of their tricks is either guessing how it works or to simply just believe it. two; if they are the only ones that can do it, then people will pay to see it.

From this point of view, I have never heard of Mike Taylor lecture being sold out, DVDs of botany being in the top ten best sellers, or the Einstein Relativity Show.

Point being, it is easy to entertain the stupid.

Dave Nelson (profile) says:

Paid Services

I don’t really mind if some company wants to package and index research papers and legal opinions and briefs. I understand that can be very convenient for some customers, especially in the legal profession. I DO mind that the ONLY access to the documents is through the services. All such documents MUST be freely available to the public that paid for them. If someone wants to package and index them for a fee, fine, but that can’t be the only available access.

Uncle B says:

Locking Academic Reaserch Behind a Paywall

Astounding arrogance in this Western world well demonstrated here! The Asian Intelligentsia, greater by some factor over x 100 and operating beyond computer speeds today, and with full social, and government support, will “Steam Roller” the Western World corporate pay out/pay off systems in this next decade! Look hard Western Retard! Electric bullet trains, Thorium fueled reactors Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal, Geothermal, Biological, domestic energy advances in the Asian sector, even now a thrust away from smog and gridlock producing automobiles from America’s 20th century aberrations on all mankind, and even Asian diets are better today!
Is this not a tempest in an ever more impoverished Capitalist Corporatist concept teapot, as the Asian communists break all those old rules and prosper beyond belief today? Do we really see the writing on the wall for the corporatist systems in this world?
Science from Asia still locked in Mandarin manuscripts, yet to reach the West, describe a much different world!
U.S. on the cusp of the end of its dollar, China is in control, and any patents, copyrights, proprietary secrets to be abridged by the Socialist and communist rules of the day? Even sub assemblies, electronics, sub-contracted, made in China found in Hercules aircraft sold to Canada as “Made in U.S.A. and proprietary? Secret? Not a product of a Multi National corporation ? plutocracy? And the F-35’s similarly to be sub contracted to China’s factories, then re-sold to Canada as Proprietary, Made in the U.S.A.?
This bird already out of the cage, already in the hands of the Uber Rich, the plutocratic incorporation, the multi nationals well moneyed organizations?
P.S. recently revealed Chinese fighter bear strong similarities to F-35’s for damned good reasons folks!

Jose_X (profile) says:

contrast sharer with profiteer

A: We are scientists.. whatever we create should be open to all.

B: What we created did not exist before so we can charge and restrict however we want.

Obviously, B has flaws (eg, copyright/patent being a privilege intended to help public, dependency of creators on societal context, and inevitability of many ideas and inventions, generally), but the mindset contrast is interesting.

Note that the scientist is clear of his/her dependence on others as building blocks. The creative writer (and “inventor”) seems to ignore that since it’s less immediate and the value is not as much in the discovery of fact or idea (for the writer) but in the details of the artistic presentation (at least ideally for the copyright case, if not in practice). I find B particularly bad for the land grab on ideas, eg, swpat.

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