What justification do companies such as Elsevier have for putting some of the most important papers in theoretical physics of the past half century behind pay firewalls? None, whatsoever. Take for example the following paper by Edward Witten, written in 1983 when he was an employee of Princeton University: Current Algebras, Baryons and Quark Confinement. Elsevier had no role in Witten’s research. It was the medium for propagating his ideas and as such profited from playing this role. But to continue to sit on such significant work for nearly thirty years is a disservice to and a betrayal of the global scientific community.
It is a relief that such corporate greed was not around in Da Vinci’s or Moses’ time, or else we would have to pay just to see an image of the Mona Lisa or read a psalm from the Bible.
Another egregious and more recent example is the following paper published in Nature: Real-space observation of a two-dimensional skyrmion crystal. This is another example of ground breaking research that was performed in publicly funded research centers in Japan and South Korea and which is hidden away behind a pay firewall. This is not a Hollywood movie whose makers need to recoup their costs. It is, as such, part of our common, global, publicly funded scientific heritage. The researchers in question could have also have chosen a journal, such as PRL, which does not prevent them from posting a copy on publicly accessible databases such as the arXiv.
Such corporate greed is illustrative of the growing irrelevance of these companies. In an era when the propagation of information across the planet costs less than a dollar per gigabyte transferred such behavior is reminiscent of that of dinosaurs. And just as those massive creatures went extinct, outmaneuvered and outrun by smaller and more adept creatures, so will these ships of academic publishing sooner or later.
Interestingly, soon after this post went up the New York Times posted a nice article summarizing the coming revolution in academic publishing: