Publish means “make public”. Paywalls are the opposite of publishing

October 16, 2012

“But Mike”, you say, “What’s wrong with publishers making a profit?”

Nothing is wrong with publishers making a profit.

PLOS made an operating profit of 21.5% in 2011 (though they plough it back into their mission “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication”.) BioMed Central also makes a profit, and since they are a for-profit company they get to keep it, distribute it to shareholders, or what have you. Good on them.

If you can make money by publishing research, that’s great.

The issue is not publishers who make money. The issue is corporations that go by the title “publishers”, but which in fact make money by preventing publication.

Because “publish” means “make public”. The whole point of a publisher is to make things public. The reason the scientists of 30 years ago sent their papers to a publisher was because having a publisher print them on paper and ship them around the world was the most effective way to make them public. And subscriptions were the obvious way to pay for that work. But now that anything can be made public instantly — “Publishing is not a job any more, it’s a button”giving papers to a “publisher” that locks them behind a firewall is the opposite of publishing. It’s privating.

Yesterday we saw an appalling demonstration of why this is so important. The barrier-based textbook publisher Pearson found that in 2007 a teacher had posted a copy of the Beck Hopelessness Scale on his blog. It’s a 20-question list, intended to help prevent suicide, and totals 279 words. It was published in 1974, and Pearson holds the copyright, selling copies  for $120 — $6 per question, or 43¢ per word.

So naturally Pearson saw their profits being eaten into by the free availability of the Beck Scale. Naturally, rather than contacting the blog author, or the network that it’s part of, they sent a DMCA takedown notice to ServerBeach, who host the web server that the blog was on. And naturally ServerBeach shut down the entire site twelve hours later.

This site, Edublogs, is home to 1,451,943 teacher and student blogs. Yes, you read that right. One and a half million blogs.

So to recap: because a teacher five years ago posted a copy of 279-word, 38-year-old questionnaire that costs $120, the publisher shut down 1.5 million blogs. That works out at 0.008¢ per blog.

We could talk all day about all the things that went wrong here — the ludicrously unbalanced DMCA (“half a DeMoCrAcy”), the idiot response of ServerBeach — but I want to focus on one issue. The reason Pearson issued a DMCA takedown is because they make their money by preventing access. It’s the nature of the beast. If your business model is to prevent people from making things public, then this kind of thing is inevitable. Whereas it is literally impossible for PLOS or BMC ever to perpetrate this kind of idiocy because their business model is to make things public. When someone else takes a thing that they have made public and makes it more public, then great! No-one has to issue any DMCA takedowns!

And this is why there is a fundamental, unbridgeable divide between open-access publishers and barrier-based publishers. It’s why no amount of special programmes, limited-time zero-cost access options, reductions in subscription rates, access to back-issues and so on will ever really make any difference. The bottom line is that we want one thing — access to research — and barrier-based “publishers” want the exact opposite.

However nice they are, however much their hearts are in the right place, they want one thing and we want the opposite. And that just won’t do.

They’re going to have to go. All of them.

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18 Responses to “Publish means “make public”. Paywalls are the opposite of publishing”


  1. You said, “The whole point of a publisher is to make things public.

    The point of publication is not necessarily “to make public.” That is the derivation of the word, but the term, and the words associated with it, have changed — as have so, so many words. “Publish” now seems to merely mean “to produce in a form”, although this is taking the definition to the purpose by which it is currently used; it does not diminish that this is its common meaning.

    From Dictionary.com:
    1. to issue (printed or otherwise reproduced textual or graphic material, computer software, etc.) for sale or distribution to the public.
    2. to issue publicly the work of: Random House publishes Faulkner.
    3. to announce formally or officially; proclaim; promulgate.
    4. to make publicly or generally known.
    5. Law. to communicate (a defamatory statement) to some person or persons other than the person defamed.”

    To reflect on the earlier post on blogging as “publication”, I will say that at first glance production of paper journals (in general) follows some of these definitions, especially 1 and 4; blogging follows 4, but especially (and typically) 3.

    I will agree with a prong of your argument, as I have elsewhere, that science communication should be freely available, or have as few barriers to access as can be arranged (which is to say, “free”). But this is my (and your) perspective; it is not in our place to tell publishers that they cannot make money, or to say that the publisher has to give things away for free. Part of the market involved here is that we are permitted access to journals which do NOT use paywalls; do not charge use fees or require you to purchase the issue; do not necessarily punish authors from distributing the work to peers. We can (as I have said before) work selectively to “starve” the for-profits of value by publishing worthwhile pieces outside of their umbrella.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jaime asserts:

    It is not in our place to tell publishers that they cannot make money

    Perhaps you missed the opening lines of the post, where I wrote:

    “But Mike”, you say, “What’s wrong with publishers making a profit?”

    Nothing is wrong with publishers making a profit.

    I’m really not sure how much clearer I can be.

    The issue is not, and has never been, that publishers make money. Everyone has to make money, and since actual publishing is itself a good thing, it’s a good thing to make your money by doing. The problem is not with people making money by publishing. It’s with people who make money by preventing publication. And that is, still, the dominant business model in the “publishing” business.

  3. Vertebrat Says:

    Incorporating open access into the definition of “publication” is a good rhetorical strategy: what isn’t public isn’t published. It is a redefinition — it doesn’t even count books as published — but it is faithful to the real goal of scientific publication, which is to make results as published as possible.


  4. […] bottom line is, if a paper is behind a paywall, it’s not really published. The academic community is less able to benefit from it; that is even more true of the broader […]

  5. Ramon Baba Says:

    No, no, no.

    People pay for everything in life, in one way or another. Cost is relative. You pay for the journal to receive, review, edit, compile and publish. Printing and distribution costs are part of the whole but not necessarily a majority. The Internet greatly lowers the barriers to distribution but does nothing else. Bandwidth costs real money (it’s cheap but not free). So does hosting, IT support, web design, graphic design and I think you get the point.

    Journals have to be sustainable somehow. Maybe there are other business models which will enable not for profit operation at lower cost to the end user but user pays is valid and has excellent scalability. Science should be free (libre) but since it occurs in the real world it is not free (gratis).
    I guess we could go back to the days before grants when scientists spent their own money and own free time conducting research, and then spent more money publishing it.

    Changes in the way scientific knowledge is distributed wont happen by twisting journals’ arms until they make it free. It will be in a radically different way and may not even resemble journals as we know them.

    Read up about disruption theory, disruptive innovation and job to be done theory. Look at the radical changes in music distribution and music business models with the rise of iPods, iTunes and then streaming services like Spotify. Look at how this has changed how musicians work.

    Then look at the current state of scientific publication. Finally ask yourself: What do people hire scientific journals to do?

    The knowledge is there, it has value, it’s value is relative. Humans who want it will get it.

    Edit: hmm seems I am late to the party

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Ramon, I am not really clear on what you’re saying “No no no” to. Is it the idea of paying publishers for the service they provide? If so, I don’t follow your reasoning. Here is why subscriptions are a disaster: they don’t scale. Every single person or organisation that wants access has to pay (and has to go through the rigmarole of finding a way to do so). To double the audience for an interesting article, the world has to double what it pays. Whereas if the publisher is paid once up front for the work it actually does (Gold OA) then suddenly twice as many people can see the article at no additional cost; or ten times as many; or a hundred.

  7. Thomas Munro Says:

    “Privating” is gold! I’ve been looking for a term along those lines. May I suggest a corollary? Publishing is done by publishers; privating is done by privateers. Privateers relieve people of the fruits of their work or investment without compensation, then sell them – often to the very same suckers they took them from. Just like pirates. But unlike piracy, it’s legal. Swab the decks, ye scurvy taxpayers! Arrr.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    “Privateer” is the very word I’ve been thinking of, yes!


  9. […] it can’t be rescinded. The world can see and read and use and benefit from your work, and the “publisher” can’t prevent […]


  10. […] be zero. Because although it’s a painful waste of time to negotiate the paywalls erected by those corporations we laughably call “publishers”, this “solution” will be more of a waste of time still. (Not to mention a waste of […]


  11. […] scholarly publishers really need to be reminded that “publish” means “make public”? Yes. Yes, they do. Apparently. Remember how I called legacy publishers “enemies of […]


  12. […] means “make public”. Paywalls are the opposite of publishing” http://svpow.com/2012/10/16/pub… via http://svpow.com/2013/12/06/elsevier… (and @NGhoussoub […]


  13. […] problem: Strictly speaking, most psychology research isn’t really “published” – it is printed within journals that expressly deny access to the public (unless you are willing […]


  14. […] problem: Strictly speaking, most psychology research isn’t really “published” – it is printed within journals that expressly deny access to the public (unless you are willing […]


  15. […] As so often in these discussions, it depends what we mean by our terms. The Barosaurus paper, like this one on neck cartilage, is “published” in the sense that it’s been released to the public, and has a stable home at a well known location maintained by a reputable journal. It’s open for public comment, and can be cited in other publications. (I notice that it’s been cited in Wikipedia). It’s been made public, which after all is the root meaning of the term “publish”. […]


  16. […] post yesterday was one of several posts on this blog that have alluded to Clay Shirky’s now-classic article How We Will Read […]


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