One of the saddest conversations I’ve had since I began academic life was with a student near the end of his distance-based MBA program. He had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and had especially enjoyed access to the university’s electronic library. Unlike most students, he took the time to discover new things in the literature and had applied some of these ideas in his company. All that was about to end: after granting his degree, the university would take away access to The Vault. No more “open” literature for you, buddy.
I walked away from that conversation disillusioned. The academic world was about to close the doors of knowledge to a member of the public whose very tax dollars had funded the research. Even more sad: it had never occurred to me that the public didn’t have access to the open literature—I was simply too absorbed in the system to notice or to care.
The student’s dilemma has many causes; I will mention the most obvious: Copyright. When academics have a paper accepted for publication in almost any journal, they are required to sign away copyright to the journal (restrictions vary by journal), which then publishes and locks up the knowledge. The article becomes available only to those who pay. This publication model made sense when paper journals were the only way to distribute knowledge—someone had to pay for the printing and distribution—but it is hard to justify in the current day, when I can reach more people at lower cost in this blog post than any of my research articles ever reached after sitting for years in archive journals. Why should I sign away copyright to a publisher who almost guarantees that my work will not be read?
In the book publishing world, authors sign over copyright because the publisher agrees to market the book, and the author expects royalties in return. That’s the whole point of publishing. Not so with academic publishing: publishers don’t market the research (they are not even capable of doing so), and we don’t get royalties. In the end, the vast majority of academic work reaches no one.