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.