As an optimist young researcher I finally ”got it”. This blog post is my last ever public standing criticism on the academic publishing process, as an open-access activist I am already a persona non grata in certain academic circles. Most doctoral students simply research the world as it is, few others criticize and try to change the same world, but doctoral students should never criticize or try to change their own academic system (most probably will turn against them).
When in 1980, Tim Berners-Lee working for CERN, created the World Wide Web with the goal of easing the dissemination of research data and research publications, nothing would be like before. Researchers could exchange scientific knowledge by digital manners (faster, cheaper and without depending on the publishing business for printing and distributing knowledge via paper). In terms of Information Systems research, it was almost in vain !!
The advantages of digitization were absolved by the publishers but not transferred to the researchers. We are now paying many times more for accessing knowledge than in the early 80’s. The printing blocks disappeared, the typing process is now made by the researchers themselves, the paper format gave its way to pdf and distribution logistics are now run almost real-time on top of the Web. But since 1980, the price of academic publications increased three times more than the number of academic publications.
Researchers perform their research and send their papers as volunteers, reviewers and editors filter and control the quality of papers also as volunteers. Then the publishers host a website, force the researchers to transfer their copyrights and then sell the same papers back to the same volunteers by exorbitant prices.
More recently, the publishers even start blaming the same volunteers for the increasing publications prices. The ”criminal” academics are pirating papers, and then publishers need to increase the their prices. Academics know, by data collected by several universities running printing blocks, that the price of publishing a printed journal booklet do not cost more that 3€ per page. But the same academics are paying as much as 30.000€ for four booklets as year. From the 30.000€ multiplied by the number of universities subscribing the academic journal, the publisher get fantastic profits. Plus and extra, they are more and more selling single article papers on the Web that can easily cost 100€. The academics made most of the work and still they get almost nothing!!! All intellectual property and monetary gains are transferred to the publishers, researcher is left just with intangible academic prestige.
Open-access was fixing the issue. Universities and research institutions could act as self-publishers and if authors would pay a very small fee for publishing (i.e. 80€) the work would be published in public domain over the Internet without copyright transfers. But now with the imposed bibliographic lists, Information Systems researchers must publish on the same publications outlets that dominated the previous decades. No space for new journals. Even if an editorial board resigns from the traditional publishing model and lauches a new journal by open-access manners, researchers will not get points by sending to the open-acess one.
Open-access journals were booming, in particle physics they only use open-access journals, in medicine and bio-technology open-access journals rank among the most prestegious, but Information Systems researchers lost the opportunity. Now with bibliometric lists, the emergence of open-acess journals was ihnibited. Publishers won. I give up. It was easy, the big publishers followed the same aproach as Francis Xavier when evagelizing India: Convince the Brahmins and they will convert the lower casts by themselves. Professors defined how and where everyone must disseminate their knowledge, and it was already diffused as in a proper pyramidal system.
I will see the budgeted funds from the national administrations flowing more and more to the publishers (for accessing knowledge) and less and less to the researchers (for producing knowledge). Doctoral thesis collections will be only unlocked with a credit card and researchers from the developing world will not a minimum chance of accessing fundamental knowledge by legal manners. For researchers I expect more precariousness while publishers are now safe, they can continue exhibiting their journals on windows of pure gold and shinning glass.
I complained, debated, informed, raised attention. From prestigious academics I heard everything: ”It’s a war that you need to win, we already won ours”, ”It’s not the right attitude to criticize the system” , ”If we all pay the subscription prices will go down”, ”Elsevier is a partially Dutch company”, ”What will happen to the wealth of America if we lose our leadership in the publishing industry”, ”You are right, but who are you to say it?”, ”You should forget ethical issues, they don’t matter for your career” , ”You must be on the top journal from the big brands and that’s it”. Some did not understand yet that this problem is affecting their end-of-month salary, many don’t care, others are too busy to do anything and me … I can’t do anything, I am just a doctoral candidate and public activism often turned against me.
It’s over, no more activism. For now one, I play with the dictated rules, and then with luck I might continue having a job in academia, and perhaps in a dozen years, I might still have the power and the energy to impact the system.
The publishers won the war, they also made martirs like the respectful Aaron Swartz (creator of RSS syndication system) that suicide last January before fighting a 35 years jail term for illegally downloading research papers from JSTOR archive from the MIT WIFI network. As Swartz pointed, researchers can not do more that adopting guerilla tactics on the underground.
Here in Finland, publicly sharing your own papers via a digital platform is a crime punishable with 3 years of prison. In many countries, publishers are even allowed to watch the Internet networks and Universities Information Systems to identify violations of their Intellectual property rights. But we still have the right of self-archiving our working papers (of course publishers might refuse to publish your final peer reviewed version). But we have some power still, we can safely distribute our printed working papers by regular mail without anyone watching it.
I will personally continue being active on the evagelization of the open-acess, but never more public manners. Just guerrilha tactics, underground and peer-to-peer. At least I know that many of my close research peers and the poor researchers from all over the world will sympatise with the guerillha open-acess activists.
Jose Teixeira, Doctoral Candidate in Information Systems Science