Set Research Free

The absurd price of  online access to academic journals is a scandal.

It costs $15 to look at this paper I co-wrote for Science on HIV/AIDS (for just 24 hours, too!) and £20 to buy this World Economics paper of mine. As a co-author, I wasn’t paid for either of them – the benefit from the copyright accrues solely to the journal publisher.

This absurd situation is made far worse when work has been funded by the taxpayer. Alex and I wrote a paper for the Foreign Office which Palgrave wanted to reprint in one of its journals. Again, no fee was on offer, but they wanted worldwide copyright until 70 years after Alex and I are both pushing up the daisies:

In consideration of us agreeing to publish the contribution referred to below (the “Contribution”), you assign to Palgrave Macmillan the copyright in the Contribution in all media throughout the world for the  full term of the copyright including all revivals and reversions.

Palgrave even has the cheek to argue they are doing this to protect my interests. “Ownership of copyright by the journal owner facilitates international protection against infringement of copyright, libel or plagiarism, it argues, “It also ensures that requests by third parties to reprint… are handled efficiently in accordance with our general policy which encourages dissemination of knowledge within the framework of copyright.”

It also generously offers to let me “make and distribute copies of the contribution to colleagues, for the personal use by such colleagues (but not commercially or systematically, e.g. via an e-mail list or list serve).” Gee, thanks guys.

Although we refused to sign the rights away, online access to the Palgrave version of the paper will still cost $30. Our fee from the government was small, but the same principle holds for scientific research on which millions of pounds of public money has been lavished. The public pays. The academics do the work. And the public pays again if it was wants access to the results. Who benefits? The publisher and non-one else.

At the moment, Tom Watson is canvassing suggestions for his Digital Manifesto for the upcoming British general election (he is standing for re-election in West Brom East). I added the following pledge for him to consider:

As a commenter on Tom’s User Voice site points out, this would mean boosting “open manuscript repositories, open access journals, and/or new hybrid publication models.” The government would be using its buying power to push much more research into the public domain, where it can seed further news ideas and create a dynamic knowledge commons.

If it joined with a few other governments, it could permanently change the academic publication model almost overnight.

As Iain Dale has pointed out, Tom Watson is setting himself up as the unofficial Member of Parliament for the Internet – and is very keen to hear what web users have to say. So do head over to his site to comment and vote on this and other digital economy ideas, or to add your own suggestions…