All of science gets a general index

For your text-mining pleasure, courtesy of Carl Malamud and Public Resource.

Cory Doctorow


It’s hard to overstate what a scam academic and scientific publishing is. It’s run by an oligopoly of wildly profitable companies that coerce academics into working for free for them, and then sell the product of their labors back to the academics’ employers (often public institutions) for eye-popping sums.

Here’s how that works: a publicly funded researcher (often working for a public institution) does some research. In order to progress up the career ladder and secure more funding, they need to publish their research in a prestigious journal. That journal asks other publicly funded researchers (chosen by a volunteer editorial board of publicly funded researchers) to peer-review and edit the paper. If the paper is selected for publication, the researcher signs over their copyright in it — life plus 70 years — to the journal, for free.

Then, the sales department of the journal pays a call on institutions that pays the salaries of the paper’s authors. They offer a “subscription” to the journal — that is, access to a database that costs almost nothing to maintain — that can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. Journal subscriptions have experienced rapid, sustained price inflation for decades.

If someone at that institution were to share the paper their colleague produced in the next lab over, they’d be committing copyright infringement — because their colleague had to give their copyright away to the publisher as a condition of publication, which is, in turn, a condition of career advancement.

This is chokepoint capitalism at its finest: publishers’ primary “asset” is a legally defensible barrier between academics and their career prospects, so it can coerce them into accepting all kinds of abusive conduct.

But as bad as it is that billion-dollar multinationals are extracting huge, parasitic rents from our publicly funded knowledge-creation system, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The real harms come from what this does to science and scholarship. Locking up all those papers means that researchers who aren’t affiliated with wealthy institutions are denied access to the raw materials of study and…