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The Sad Legacy Of Copyright: Locking Up Scientific Knowledge And Impeding Progress

from the you're-doing-it-wrong dept

We’ve repeated this over and over again, but the Constitutional rationale for copyright is “to promote the progress of science” (in case you’re wondering about the “useful arts” part that comes after it, that was for patents, as “useful arts” was a term that meant “inventions” at the time). “Science” in the language of the day was synonymous with “learning.” Indeed, the very first US copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1790 is literally subtitled “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.” Now, it’s also true that the method provided by the Constitution for the promotion of this progress was a monopoly right — locking up the content for a limited time. But the intent and purpose was always to promote further learning. This is why, for years, we’ve questioned two things: First, if the monopoly rights granted by copyright are hindering the promotion of learning, should they still be Constitutional? Second, if the goal is the promotion of learning, shouldn’t we be exploring if there are better methods to do that, which don’t involve monopoly rights and limiting access. And this, of course, leaves aside all the big questions about how much copyright has changed in the past 227 years.

Still, I’m thinking about all of this again in response to a new report — first found on BoingBoing — noting that 65 out of the 100 most cited papers are behind a paywall. The report is interesting and depressing. It doesn’t just point out that these 65 papers are behind a paywall, but notes the price of the article, and what the effective total price to cite really is (which they list as “cost to buy individually”).

The web was built specifically to share research papers amongst scientists. Despite this being the first goal of the modern web, most research is still published behind a paywall. We have recently highlighted famous math papers that reside behind a paywall as well as ten papers that have achieved a near rockstar status in research and the public. Here we systematically look at the top one hundred cited papers of all time and find that 65%65%? of these papers are not open. Stated another way, the world?s most important research is inaccessible from the majority of the world.

In case you’re wondering, the average price to access each article is $32.33 (and the median is $32), with the range being $4 to $41. There aren’t too many down around the $4 range, mind you. It’s pretty much an outlier. As you’d suspect from the average, most are priced in the $25 to $40 range.

Of course, it’s worth thinking carefully about this — especially in an age where a useful service like Sci-Hub, which has created a library of academic research, open to all, is being attacked as an infringer, with all sorts of attempts to shut it down. Does this really make sense if the goal of copyright is to increase learning? (It’s a separate discussion altgoether whether the purpose of copyright was ever really to increase learning, or if that was just a fig leaf to cover over the idea that it was a monopoly right for publishers).

The people writing these academic papers are almost never incentivized by the copyright. Hell, in most cases, the journals they publish in require the copyright be turned over to the journal. The journal, which profits massively from all this free labor, seems to disproportionately benefit from this setup. It gets the copyright. It charges insane amounts — mainly to a captive audience of universities which feel required to pay extortionate rates — and everyone else gets left out (or has to resort to infringement). It’s difficult to see how anyone can justify this system in an intellectually honest manner.

The supporters of the system will fallback on a few points: they will claim that the journals provide peer review — leaving out that this is also done as volunteer (free) labor, and there’s no reason it need be done via a journal. On top of that, there’s the fact that the existing peer review system is a joke that doesn’t actually work. Some will argue that the journals provide a level of trust and credibility to papers — and that’s true, even if they still often publish bogus papers.

And, of course, all of this ignores the internet. The internet solves nearly every “problem” that journals claim they solve, and does it much better and more cost effectively. With the internet, peer review can be better and more efficient (and can let in many more perspectives.). On the internet, distribution can be much wider (which, on top of everything else, encourages greater peer review!).

And so we’re left in a position where the only “benefit” of copyright in academia is to prop up a journal system that is expensive and inefficient, and which is almost entirely obsolete in the age of the internet. That’s not to say there isn’t any role for journals — there clearly are, as we see from various open access journals that take a much more modern approach to these issues.

But, in looking all of this over, it seems like an unfortunate legacy of the copyright system that is props up the broken model of expensive, obsolete, inefficient and poorly vetted journals, while outlawing the efficient, cheap and useful model of an online library of knowledge like Sci-Hub.

If an alien were to come down to the planet today, and you had to justify why Sci-Hub is illegal and the journals are considered admired institutions of academia, I don’t think anyone could legitimately do so. And when that’s the situation, it seems like it’s time to fix the system that lead to such a completely broken result.

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Comments on “The Sad Legacy Of Copyright: Locking Up Scientific Knowledge And Impeding Progress”

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aerinai says:

Look at Software Development as an Analog

Journals provide 3 pieces of value: A ‘trust’ relationship that the articles are valid (most of the time), A repository of knowledge that has been curated, and a framework to peer review the articles to enhance the entire ecosystem…

It sounds like the Open Source community has already solved that issue with repositories like GitHub, Maven, NPM, and other repositories that house software. Everyone collaboratively works together to benefit one another. You trust code that others have trusted and ‘cited’.

It would be nice to see Open Access journals take off and have a similar structure. Feel free to cite from these papers, but instead of spending $$$$ a year on a paid journal, just donate your time to peer review.

Anonymous Coward says:

First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

You are arguing science and tech sheerly for diversion from your real goal. You clowns aren’t scientists and inventors, nor avid readers of technical journals. No torrent site has more than a scattering of technical works.

You are pirates seeking mindless entertainments. You don’t in least wish to reward creators, especially of entertainments, only to steal their work.

Your usual lying attack on a Constitutional Right. As done for twenty years now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

(browser crashed: new IP)

Anyone is always free to give away their work. Copyright doesn’t lock it up: people do because in their personal interest.

But whoever puts in time and money to create OWNS their work and has the Exclusive Right to control copies. No one else does.

Creativity — even for stoopy entertainments — is a transcendent process of individuals, that’s why it’s explicitly recognized in the Constitution.

Argue cut down on terms, and I’d be with you. Claim it’s out-dated and should be done away with — you only need a Constitutional amendment — and I flatly oppose you, as does every creator, and key points of Western law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

Your reading comprehension skills could use improvement. Nothing in this article is arguing against copyright. It argues that creators forfeiting their copyright to journals is bad as it gives the journals all the power to charge ridiculous prices to access work they did not create, only publish.

Nothing in your mindless rant has anything to do with the article.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

No, ACs are important. Just keep the ability to down vote them so they appear folded. As long as it’s easy to skip over them, there’s no reason to get rid of them. We don’t need a site of yes-men – these detractors occasionally make a decent point. Not often, but it shows why being able to comment anonymously is important.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

Please don’t. I don’t comment anywhere on the internet except here. I’ve made less than ten comments in as many years. Four of them have made the weekend lists. I am one of the many people who do not have any accounts on any sites — if I were to be in the news for some reason, they would call me a “ghost”. Yet, I’ve been around for 25 years.

This site is a most precious resource for persisting a lovely tradition lost to the ages.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

But whoever puts in time and money to create OWNS their work and has the Exclusive Right to control copies.

In which case you support SciHub, as it is used by many scientists to distribute their works and bypass the lockup that come with academic publishing..

ralph_the_bus_driver (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

Just because you can do something does not mean it is right.

I do photography. My photos are my work. You do not get any right to copy them for your benefit while denying me of my reward. Sure, you can, but there is no difference between you copying them on a printer and copying them digitally. You are still stealing my work.

BTW, Fair Use and stealing are not synonymous.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

Claim it’s out-dated and should be done away with — you only need a Constitutional amendment —

Incorrect. Just as the Copyright clause grants Congress the ability to create copyright laws, it also grants Congress the ability to abolish copyright laws. Nothing in the clause mandates that copyright must exist. No Constitutional amendment required.

An interesting note about the Copyright Clause – it’s the only enumerated power granted to Congress that explicitly specifies HOW to enact such a power. This in and of itself indicates that our founding fathers themselves were concerned about copyright and patents infringing upon the inalienable rights of every human some 200 years ago.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

Just as the Copyright clause grants Congress the ability to create copyright laws

After re-reading it, I’m not sure whether that power is conditional: can they enact copyright laws generally, or can they only enact copyright laws to promote the progress of science and useful arts? In other words, would it be unconstitutional if we could show it’s not promoting that? Or is it interpreted as "to try to promote"?

And what are "useful arts"? To me that would rule out pure entertainment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

In the Eldred case, the other clause of that sentence (“For limited times”) was questioned, and the Supreme Court held 7-2 that copyrights could be extended for unlimited times de facto, as long as each step along the way was technically limited de jure. It is why we mockingly celebrate “Public Domain” day ever January 1st here.

Given that, what confidence could we have the Supreme Court would ever scrutinize the effectiveness of a copyright law “in promoting the science and arts”, if Congress declared it had?

These two things are the main part of the article — these scholarly works are not just locked up from the public. They are locked up for all time. They will never be freely available. Imagine if the great works of science by Newton and Einstein and Euler were still paywalled today. Or even worse — if they weren’t, because they were orphaned works forbidden to all to use.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 First, your Socialist slant simply doesn't apply to entertainments.

The article indicates that “useful arts” would have meant what we now would call “inventions” – techniques for doing things. “Science” would have meant “knowledge / learning”, and “the useful arts” would be equivalent to “methods for doing useful things”.

It does, indeed, not seem clear that either of these things should properly be read to cover works that exist purely for purposes of entertainment – but I can still see benefit to society in encouraging the people who create such works to release them rather than keeping them private, and a sufficiently-limited copyright is still the best idea I’ve seen suggested for a way of providing that encouragement.

That only helps if the released works do then make it into the public domain within a reasonable amount of time, of course, and currently they do not.

DrZZ says:

It's even worse

All you say is true, but it is even worse. Two specific ways
1) A number of journals will let you designate your paper for “open access” for an additional fee. But then when you look for the paper on-line you can’t get to it for free. When people complain the excuse is always “a bug in the system” or “we are working on it” and it never gets fixed. Also note there are never bugs that make paywalled articles free.
2) there is a lot of interest these days in mining the text of journal articles for data and also to cross check data and a myriad of other uses. The publishers have gone to great lengths to try to extend copyright to monopolize this activity and make people pay them for it.

A lot of the specifics can be found at https://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/. Unfortunately you have to go back many years to get the full story.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's even worse

A number of journals will let you designate your paper for "open access" for an additional fee. But then when you look for the paper on-line you can’t get to it for free. When people complain the excuse is always "a bug in the system" or "we are working on it" and it never gets fixed.

That’s not a copyright problem as much as a fraud problem. A class-action lawsuit could fix that. Or even credit-card chargebacks.

If it’s been agreed that the paper shall be open access, at the request of the author, what stops that author from simply uploading it to archive.org and other places?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: It's even worse

Lack of a central, well-known location for researchers to find the papers. The journals are banking on their repos being too well-known to usurp.

I meant in addition to the broken "official" site of the journal. So people will hit the paywall that shouldn’t be there, search for the paper, and find it on the other site.

Anonymous Coward says:


Science leads to technology.
Technology leads to industry.
Industry leads to investments.
Investments lead to watching science.

A brief look at the link above gives the impression that a lot of those papers relate to chemistry, and possibly medicine.
No matter.
Stocks don’t rise and fall on chemistry.
They rise on inventions that look promising.

Look at a market report for any medicine – the market restraints listed would be that the patent is about to expire, alternative therapies are gaining acceptance, or the drug has side effects.

The crusade for patient privacy is the crusade for hiding the side effects of medicine.

This spills over into the emergency rooms where some staff don’t even know how to report side effects from medicines.

So imagine what would happen if scientific research was opened up to the public, where it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find fault with a study. And imagine live-streaming this and causing a riot on Wall Street.

Everything has to have gate-keepers and AUTHORITY.

An Onymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning."

Abolishing copyright will make the problem worse. Copyright was created as a way to protect a creative work while, at the same time, sharing it with the world. Prior to copyrights creators would keep all of their work as secret as possible. Those who could not (authors, etc) were discouraged from creating as their work effectively became public domain at the moment of publication and there was no way to earn from their own work.

Copyright just needs to be returned to sensibility. A short period of “ownership” and then the world is free to build upon it as the original Copyright bill intended.

The same is true of patents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning."

Read up on the history of human culture, and you will find that it flourished without the creators having any copyright at all for tens of thousands of years. Also, the printing press existed for several hundred wars without the authors having any copyright.

Indeed copyright has almost nothing to do with the creation of new works, as prior to the Internet, only a tiny fraction of the works created were ever selected for publication by publishers, and rarely mad much money for the authors. Now anybody can publish, and see if the can attract an audience, and then sufficient fans willing to pay them to continue creating, and that is not dependent on copyright, as they are supported so that they can create more new works.

ralph_the_bus_driver (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning."

Prior to the copyright, yes, many inventions were kept secret. The telescope was a secret invention, until the secret got out.

Eli Whitney perfected the cotton gin. It was copied and he made extremely little money off of it. Similar to the ease of copyright in the digital era, the cotton gin was so simple to build that it was just home built by farmers.

The French inventor of photography, Niepce, gave his invention to the world, except for Britain. He made them pay royalties (France and Britain were still enemies). The patent didn’t last as the English inventor, Talbot, invented a different method at the same time. Secretly.

Anonymous Coward says:

the digital "tax"

Can anyone explain why it (supposedly) costs so much to operate an online journal? The high cost of printed journals was always dictated to a large degree by the printing costs, resulting in a per-unit price inversely proportional to the number of copies printed. As a digital publication completely eliminates major expenses such as the labor intensive task of typesetting, the immense cost savings of a digital publication should trickle down. But of course it doesn’t.

ECA (profile) says:

Copyrights to the individual..

Copyrights Seem to have been created MORE for the person then for the CORP..
The thing about CORPS is that they Bury CR, in a safe and Never release the info, until SOMEONE TRY’S to create the same item..
CR has a back door in that ANYONE can make it, as long as it is personal USE ONLY, never for resale.
But with Corp controls they can HOLD a CR for along time, and over charge for it FOREVER..as in your Cellphone Which has over 35 CR from corps around the world..and PART of the problem with The price.. Even if another company/person creates a CHIP to do the Exact same thing, the CR holder can STOMP on you, and you have to prove yours is Different, SOMEHOW..

AND the Corps LOVE Spreading CR in all its forms to other nations that DONT DO CR..
From bulling to payoff the Politicians.. They will Get a nation to create STUPID laws and try to get them PASSED into OUR OWN CR laws/rules..

AND why would a person GIVE his rights away to a Corp?? that takes the CR and HIDES his work. There is NO REAL open forum to discus what he has done or if there is a way to IMPROVE IT.. HOW would anyone get access to it, and Produce it?? AND NOT GET SUED BY THE JOURNAL?? Not the creator.. And the Creator gets Nothing..

MyNameHere (profile) says:

It fun watching you try so hard, but you fail.

Sci-hub is illegal not because of what is on it, but because of how it got there. When you try to confuse the two, using essentially the old ends justifies the means method, you can forget the crime occurred.

Citing a paper does not create a sale of that paper. Papers are often cited because their knowledge if well or commonly known, and they are only pointing the uninformed back to the original. As an example the last one “Cleavage of Structural Proteins during the Assembly of the Head of Bacteriophage T4” is from 1970, so 47 years on you can be pretty sure that it is well and commonly known. Citing the original doesn’t mean “go pay to read the entire original” as much of the work is discussed elsewhere over time.

The most cited paper? It’s free access, and from 1951.

So now you have an interesting question, how long is their sample period? If it’s a question of “all citations ever”, that would exceed the amount of time that these documents have been online.

Moreover, it doesn’t address that before the internet, it’s likely that getting a full copy of a paper you are citing would require you to send a fee for a printed copy, which would be mailed to you. Calling it a “paywall” because you don’t like paywalls ignores the process by which these papers have been delivered for more than a century.

The knowledge isn’t locked up. Citations are a perfect indication that the knowledge is out there. After all, could you cite something you don’t know about?

Moreover, and this is key to all you pirate types out there, and in your own terms: “A citations isn’t a sale”.


MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The average person doesn’t need to download every citation every time it is cited to know about it. In fact, I would say that the average person wouldn’t want to read any of them.

The information isn’t locked up – it’s readily available in the same manner that a print book is readily available – you buy a copy, or borrow a copy from your school, library, or similar.

Locked up would suggest that nobody can access it. It’s not true at all.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Of course not everything is “well known” but had to be known enough for someone to find it.

Citing a work doesn’t mean that everyone reading your report or using your product has to go out and buy a copy of the cited work. In fact, many of the most cited works are also freely and openly discussed in other papers and other works, peer reviewed, and so on.

The stuff isn’t locked up so nobody can read it or access it.

Citations don’t mean that the work is unknown or the conclusions / results hidden. A citation is not a requirement to purchase the cited work. Citation isn’t inclusion.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Remember Who Is Getting The Copyright Here

Is it the scientists who did the actual research? No.

Is it the funding bodies who paid for that research? No.

Is it the fellow scientists who volunteered their (unpaid) time to review the papers before publication? No.

It’s the publishers who control how the rest of the world gets told about the research. Did they pay any of the above entities for the work they did on that paper? No. They have to get paid just to publish it. And then they get to charge astronomical amounts for subscriptions to the journals. So they get paid twice. And they own the rights to continue to get paid again, on into that fabled future where copyrights are supposed to expire. but never actually seem to.

Anonymous Coward says:

1) To flourish, knowledge production requires two things: for those doing the work to be compensated and for the flow of the information to be unimpeded.
2) No one has found a really good way to do this. Either knowledge producers get ripped off or the information is made artificially scarce or it is paid for with advertising and everything gets warped .
3) Historically, the inability to properly organize knowledge production was unfortunate.
4) Now that knowledge production is the core of the economy, the inability to properly organize knowledge production is a grave problem, most likely eventually fatal for the current society.

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