Copyright Week: Open Access As The Antidote To Privatizing Knowledge And Learning

from the locking-up-science dept

The very first copyright law in the US was officially called “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.” Indeed, that was the actual stated purpose of copyright law at the time. It wasn’t supposed to be a system for protecting the revenue of artistic folks. In fact, it didn’t even cover most artistic works at the time. It was limited to “maps, charts and books.” Music? Not protected. Paintings? Not protected. Sculpture? Not protected. That’s because it wasn’t about artwork, but about the spread of knowledge through learning.

Yes, the idea was to provide a limited monopoly to incentivize the initial creation, and the exchange was that it would then be given into the public domain soon after, such that everyone could learn from it. Yesterday, we covered the importance of the public domain, and today’s topic for Copyright Week goes hand in hand with it: the idea of open access.

Copyright law was supposed to encourage greater access to knowledge to have a better educated populace. But the current setup of the law appears to do the exact opposite of that much of the time. When it comes to newly discovered knowledge, our copyright law (and the way it’s used by some giant companies) seems almost entirely focused on making knowledge more expensive and less open thereby massively hindering the ability to share knowledge and better educate the public.

This has been seen most recently in the publishing giant Reed Elsevier’s effective war on access to knowledge, using copyright law as a sort of weapon to block researchers from sharing their own research. However, as we’ve discussed for many years, the whole system is rigged against knowledge access and sharing, and in favor of giant publishers locking up knowledge — often including research that was funded almost entirely by your tax dollars.

Here’s how the privitization of knowledge works, thanks to copyright:

  1. Professor wants to do some research, and files for some grants (usually from the government) to pay for that research. If that professor works for a state school, at least part of their salary is already partially paid for by public funds.
  2. Government agrees to grant, provides taxpayer money to the researcher to conduct important research.
  3. Research is completed, and the professor and some grad students/assistants write up the results in a paper.
  4. Because academics are still (stupidly) judged on how often they “publish” in “prestigious” journals, the professor submits the paper to a few well known journals. In some (though not all) fields, the journals make the professor pay a submission fee.
  5. The journals send the paper out to two peer reviewers, who do not get paid. They basically provide an editorial function to the publisher for free.
  6. The journal “accepts” the paper, and demands that the professor hand over every possible copyright on the work and related research. I even know some academics who had to recreate their own research for later research, because they felt they were barred from using a chart they had created in a previous work without violating the copyright.
  7. The publisher then sells the journal to academic libraries at absolutely insane prices. A freedom of information request at one university a few years ago showed that the university paid £688,093 — or $1.1 million — over a five year period for just three products from Elsevier, and only one of those products included full access to all of the published papers. The other two were merely for “abstracts and statistics.” For just the popular ‘Science Direct,’ this one university paid between $150,000 to about $200,000 per year, for a subscription to just one journal.
  8. Even when, as with the National Institute of Health, there’s a requirement for “open access” publishing after one year, many journals will try to charge a very high fee (often thousands of dollars) to pay for “submitting” the paper to an open access repository.

In short, we have taxpayer funded research for which the publisher pays nothing, but gets the entire copyright, and then they sell the journals back to academic institutions for subscriptions often well over $100,000 per year — and the research is completely locked up. Even more insulting in all of this, copyright was never the reason that the research was done in the first place. Remember, the purpose of original copyright law was to create an incentive for these individuals to do the research and publish the results — but here, researchers are academics who are getting paid via grants, so the copyright is not the incentive at all.

It can be argued that copyright was at one point part of the incentive for the publishers to set up the peer review process, and then to help publish and distribute the works, but is that a process that is needed any more? It’s difficult to see how. The things that publishers do (peer review, distribution) can be done much more effectively and efficiently these days, without the gatekeeper status or the insanely high prices. Oh yeah, and without locking up the knowledge.

Learning and scientific knowledge increases when we share knowledge, data and information widely and freely, allowing others to learn from it, to build on it and to continue to educate others and themselves. Today’s copyright law does the opposite in almost every way. That’s why radically changing how open access works and when it’s expected is so important if we’re to bring copyright law back anywhere near its initial intended purpose.

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Companies: elsevier, reed elsevier

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Comments on “Copyright Week: Open Access As The Antidote To Privatizing Knowledge And Learning”

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out_of_the_blue says:

At last a solution! Now, I don't want to see any more anomalies here!

OH, WAIT. MISLEADING HEADLINE YET AGAIN. Mike isn’t here to deliver the “antidote”. A quick scan runs into the usual ABUSE as reason to do away with ALL copyright: “publishing giant Reed Elsevier’s effective war on access to knowledge, using copyright law as a sort of weapon to block researchers from sharing their own research.”

Mike frequently runs items on “copyright abuse” intended to STIFLE expression knowing full well that his fanboys then consider all copyright bad and use those bad acts to justify their own STEALING of content. As Mike never runs items condemning STEALING, it’s difficult to see how he “supports copyright”. — Mike sets up a false alternative: in fact, BOTH STIFLING AND STEALING ARE BAD.


PopeyeLePoteaux says:

Re: At last a solution! Now, I don't want to see any more anomalies here!

Hey jackass, infringement cannot by definition be theft, the content is copied, and the originals don’t get lost. Only what is legally and MATERIALLY owned can be STOLEN.

Digital content such as music files, video files, etc., are non material “objects” that do not get destroyed when consumed (as opposed to any material object) and whose “production” does not require direct consumption of material inputs (as what economists call “services” do).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: At last a solution! Now, I don't want to see any more anomalies here!

He mostly doesn’t set up an alternative. And often it isn’t needed.

The ironic thing, is that he actually does set up the alternative here and it is actually not even free!
What you likely didn’t understand in the above is that the submission fee is paid through the grant already today. By making “free” not mean ‘free to publish in’, but ‘free to read’ the exact same economic incentive will still be there!

Btw. Research level science products are some of the only automatically self-protecting IPs, because the level of required knowledge to read most of it is college/university level!

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: At last a solution! Now, I don't want to see any more anomalies here!

It’s blue, they don’t care about the public, only the corporations, and copyright as it currently stands serves them quite well, hence blue’s continual defense of it and attacking anyone who proposes alternatives or points out the flaws in the current system.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re: At last a solution! Now, I don't want to see any more anomalies here!

Cathy doesn’t give a rats about the public interest, only her own. She’s a failed content creator who believes that “increased protection” will bring in the bacon. It won’t, of course, because you need to be popular to make any money from selling copies, however strict the copyright laws are.

To my vast amusement, Cathy doesn’t understand this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: At last a solution! Now, I don't want to see any more anomalies here!

Seeing as how you never complain about the abuses of Copyright, that proves that you support corporations abusing copyright, getting away with breaking laws. You approve of one sided laws created through corruption and bribery.

Seeing as how you never complain about Police murdering citizens, that proves that you support Police murdering citizens.

Seeing as how you never complain about women being raped, you support the raping of women.


You are not a part of society, you are a plague on society that needs medical treatment.

Anonymous Coward says:

A missing step

While the article pretty well describes the system, there are a couple more steps worth looking at. The journals themselves are often set up by scholarly or professional societies (paid for from academic’s pockets, or, if they’re lucky, the uni), who typically do the hard / risky work establishing the journal. They then contract out to Elsevier or Wiley because the volunteers have other things to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: A missing step

In practice, all the critical editorial and review work is still carried out by the academics. The publishers role in the system was essentially one of arranging the logistics of printing and distribution of the paper copies needed before the Internet became a universal communication channel for academics. The publishers relied on the tradition that copyright went to the publisher, which in this case has resulted in them gaining control over priceless papers which will remain relevant for a long time. Look how long Euclid has remained important in mathematics.

artp (profile) says:

Not surprising

Print media all over the world are having financial difficulties. These guys just have to charge more to cover their expenses. Unlike the other print media, though, they have a captive audience.

This is especially ironic in the age of the Web, where publishing distribution has almost a zero cost, even while publishing markup and preparation costs have dropped, and the incremental cost is approaching zero. Open standards for publishing markup would drive that to zero immediately.

I am always glad when I see more news about researchers developing their own publishing network at drastically lower costs. We should have something like ibiblio or gutenburg for researchers Real Soon Now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not surprising

It has a reached a point where even major academic libraries are stopping subscription because of the prices and academics are seeking away from these publishers as the libraries refuse to buy from them. I think it is healthy to have this international consolidation. Much of the paperwork is getting lost which is sad, but new publication methods on the internet is making up for it. So far several of the higher cost publishers can still make a case because of the silly way “prestige” is counted today. It is not guaranteed in tomorrows market.

Unfortunately the article from the indian conference is the main argument for large publishers: The review from unknowns are, well, unknown and since the large publishers have the historic reputation, they are a much safer bet. As academics move to open source publishing that argument should fade at least for some of the open source publications, but tradition is a hard and nasty habit to break. Change = Bad etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

funny how money can corrupt just about everything and everyone, isn’t it! goes to show that unless it’s for some self-serving purpose, the people aren’t wanted at all. what these greedy arse holes done realise is that without everyone else, some of those wealthy and powerful people would have to do the crap jobs they dont want atm. eventually, those being screwed over get to the point that enough is enough. the retaliation is often very unpleasant!

anon for a good reason says:


Don’t even get me started on this. Uh Oh, too late.
I hate the journals. As an “amateur” scientist who happens to be kicking ass scientifically by paying attention to the low-hanging fruit left behind when we went from nuclear to sub-nuclear (I do a unique form of fusion and beat the world at it), I need access to the old versions of Rev Sci Ins – that’s where all the good stuff was, in the period right up to WWII or thereabouts. To get access to old copies (scanned from paper) the *cheapest* package from the big houses was $60k/year in a bundle that would turn the cable companies green with envy, full of things I neither want nor need. Can’t just buy papers, as all the abstracts promise the world, but 99% of them don’t deliver – at $35/page it’s not in the budget, you know?

Here’s the solution. Find a ton of college students. That was easy for me as an engineering mentor and music instructor. Get them to download it all via their access to the “free” in the uni library. Do all the hard work of indexing it all yourself (they tend to come in with names like download.1 – hey, they’re at school because they aren’t yet smart).

Put it up on the web. Share with only those who won’t get you into a lawsuit with Elsevier, AIP, IOP and so on. Guys who really need the info, and can’t afford it.

I’m millions of times more guilty than Aron Schwartz ever dreamed of being. All is now online, and no, I’m not handing out the link, and the reasons should be obvious. I need to be in the lab, not in jail, stripped of my worldly possessions. Maybe just before I die, and it’s not worth it for them to persecute me.

If enough of us do what I did, problem solved. And, back in the day, peer review meant something, even if unpaid. The scientists were actually trying to teach and communicate. Have you read a modern paper? All by grad students trying to impress the adviser with jargon knowledge, very little in the way of actual new science.
Maybe a slick math optimization that otherwise adds no new understanding the the real problem.

Dumb-ass example was on physorg two years back (press-release science, not the real deal, you can get an entire article and still have no clue what was actually done, or how) – someone claims to have invented the plasma triode (back in the day when plasma TVs were still cool). I pulled out a 1955 Phillips tube handbook with plasma triodes in it…modern science has “crystallized” and is mostly worthless work in search of grant money. The blind leading the blind for a few generations (this problem ain’t new) and this is what you get. I could cite endless examples, but someone might guess who I am and I really don’t like courtrooms or jail.

Sunhawk (profile) says:

Re: Solution

Depends on the field; Computer Science is a relatively newer field with a lot of practical applications, so I feel we get a solid amount of new material in our literature.

Admittedly, we have a larger percentage of conferences over publish-only journals than is the norm in other fields, so our work tends to be geared towards not making us look like fools live in front of our peers.

Which cuts out a reasonable amount of the BS.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Solution

Depends on the field; Computer Science is a relatively newer field with a lot of practical applications, so I feel we get a solid amount of new material in our literature.

The vast majority of CS books are being published by people who work in the private sector, not by academics.

In fact, if you look at academic CS journals, half of them are still coding in Lisp or Scheme(!). Quite a few of the academic papers should also be described as theoretical mathematics, rather than computer science – at least as the lay person knows it. (Example: “Exact Matrix Completion via Convex Optimization” (PDF).)

This is not to say you’re wrong, by any means, just that a lot of the practical work done in CS nowadays is not done by academics, nor funded with grants. So it’s a bit different than the situation described in this article.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Solution

It’s actually quite simple to spread it. Set up torrents and have different people super-seed them (you don’t know who has the entirety of the originals because the super-seed won’t appear as a seeder or at least it is true in some clients), host them on open trackers and spread the magnets all over. With basic cautionary measures (such as a VPN) you can easily make it available without any way of removing or being sued. Maybe do the initial distribution via cyberlockers may help too.

The future is decentralized. Unfortunately due to the need to circumvent bad laws and not because it’s more efficient.

Freya A says:

Science Direct

Just to clarify, Science Direct isn’t actually a single journal, but rather an online service that provides access to much, if not all, of Elsevier content. From their website: “Science Direct is a leading full-text scientific database offering journal articles and book chapters from more than 2,500 journals and almost 20,000 books.”

My library accesses a couple of journals through Science Direct, and then purchases a lump sum that goes towards other articles as needed at a reduced rate. This is all much more expensive than it should be, but is not quite as bad as described.

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