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.