Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The scandal of the commercial takeover of our intellectual life: the case of academic publishing

Is our intellectual life really being taken over slowly by commercial interests? I am met with incredulity when I make such a statement - at a party, for instance.

But consider the following incidents:

1. I am sitting at my computer looking for a particular quote to which I want to refer in an article that I am writing. On Googling it, I find it pretty quickly. However, I want to check the exact wording since it is some years since I read the particular piece, and my memory is not perfect :-)

So I attempt to access the piece via the hyperlink. It takes me to the site belonging to the publisher which demands a fee of $32.11 to give me access to it. That is quite a sum of money, for which I could easily buy a whole book, or even two. Exactly how many pages of material am I going to be able to buy for $32.11? In my case, ten pages - of which the particular piece in which I am interested runs for two pages (it happens to be a book review). In this case, I am not even given the option of being able to buy the two pages - I have to buy the whole book review section. As the material seems to be available from several sites, all of which lead to the publisher's page, I can only deduce that the publisher has deals with all these websites, so that the spoils are divided between the website that leads to the publisher's page and the actual publisher. Does the publisher really need to have such deals with these various websites? Is it not enough for the material to be listed on the publisher's website alone? Then, perhaps without the commission to the other websites, the material might be available to readers at a more reasonable price?

2. Here is a more egregious example. A friend who is an full professor at Oxford (let's call him Dr L) wrote an article a year or two ago and, perhaps because of the force of old established habit over the years, and certainly without any particular process of thought about it, signed away his copyright in the article to the journal publisher concerned - as one is increasingly required to do before articles and book reviews can be published. Another person (let's call him Dr S), a mutual friend, with whom I was breakfasting this morning, tells me that he wanted to translate Dr L's article into German so that it could be published in a collection of essays that he is editing for publication in Germany by a small academic publisher who will certainly not require the copyright but only the permission to publish a German translation of the original piece. Both Dr L and Dr S anticipated no problem from the Journal publisher, and permission was duly requested by Dr L in the usual formal way. But the permission has officially been denied by the publisher who (of course, now that it owns the copyright) does not need to give any grounds for denying permission.

Till a few years ago, it was customary for publishers to ask for only "first publication rights". Then this switched to the grant of copyright, though it was either written down or understood that this was merely a convenience for the publisher, and that no reasonable request for republication of the essay or article (for example in a book) would be withheld.

The whole situation has now changed, and publishers don't just want to make a reasonable profit on actually publishing articles, they want to extract the maximum profit from having acquired the intellectual property.

What rankles is that Dr L was not paid anything by the journal publisher for the original article and that the German translation and publication would be on a non-profit basis!

Conclusion: The sooner professors and others in academia stop collaborating with such commercial exploitation of their intellectual property the better.

How could they do so?


Stop publishing in these print journals controlled by commercial interests, and set up peer-reviewed journals on the internet with full and free public acess. After all the salaries of our university academics are paid by citizens!

Alternatively, professors and other intellectuals should ask for royalties for the sale of their articles, in the same way as book publisher offer royalties on the sale of books.

After all, the intellectual property is created by the professor or intellectual. Those who risk their capital in publishing academic journals certainly deserve to make a reasonable profit. But why should the professor or intellectual get nothing if the ordinary member of the public has to pay to get hold of the intellectual property produced by the professor or intellectual? Sphere: Related Content

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