Who are the real (copyright) thieves?

The term “copyright” has been largely reduced to being an oxymoron in a world where intellectual property thieves (e.g., Elsevier, Physical Review, Science, Nature, etc.) can pretend to be the victims of copyright theft, when in fact, it is they who presently hold hostage large portions of some of the best scientific research conducted over the past 100 years. These firms, today, maintain a state of intellectual apartheid enforced by their respective governments at the behest of publishing lobbies and other monetary influences.

Ultimately, this strategy is a little bit like the right hand strangling the neck so that the left hand has to pay for the nutrition it receives. It’s a lose-lose situation. Both readers and publishers stand to lose from keeping such resources closed-source indefinitely. Any body of knowledge is only as good as the amount of attention it receives. By keeping up scientific works locked behind pay-walls publishing firms are simply ensuring that no one will benefit from that knowledge. Others will have to sow their own seeds and harvest their own fruit. The old crop will, however, go to rot in locked repositories. There is no good reason for that to happen. Advances in one part of the globe will affect all other parts – this is the definition of globalization. The motto used to be “publish or perish”. In the future it will be “share or perish”.

The old model of publishing is unsustainable and is actively giving way to newer players who make all content open-access. However, such players are still in their infancy and the costs they impose on authors are still too steep. To expect young researchers and graduates at the beginning of their careers when they are generally at their creative peaks, but also have little to show for it and therefore often exist in a state of impoverishment, to shell out anywhere from $400 – $1,000 to get a paper published is completely unrealistic.

Apart from the practical questions regarding the economic feasibility of various publishing models, there is the more direct and pertinent question of the legality and morality of the stand adopted by publishing houses.

Even a cursory search of any volume of any physics journal in any part of the 20th century will show that the authors of most published works received public funds in one form or another which allowed them to do their research. That is not to say that private entities have not contributed to such works but it is also safe to say that the overwhelming majority of funding for research and development in the western world has come from public funds. For publishers to therefore claim sole and eternal ownership of such works is outright theft of what should have become community property in the due course of time.

In the absence of e-mail and the internet publishers played a vital role in disseminating research results in the 20th century. The owners and investors of such firms were also rewarded handsomely for their labors. But after what length of time should published works enter the public domain? Is thirty, forty, or a hundred years not long enough for publishers to recoup whatever costs they ever will from readers? How long will the average researcher – who does not have the good fortune of being affiliated to a wealthy institution – have to continue to pay exorbitant prices to read the works of Witten, Atiyah, Feynman, Einstein or the equally significant works of lesser souls?

The question arises, in this day and age of open-source and collaborative or “crowd-sourced” research, is their even a need for such entities such as editors, page designers and the many other functions that have been the traditional been provided by publishing houses? The answer to that is an emphatic, “yes”. The fundamentals of publishing have not changed. Only the medium has. Words, whether in ink or in bit and bytes, still need parsing. The work that emerges from a researcher’s hands is a bit like crude oil. It still needs substantial processing and refinement before it is ready for mass consumption.

There do exist “open” repositories such as arXiv.org where research papers on a broad  range of topics – with its origins in, and thus being centered around, physics – can be uploaded and viewed free of cost by anyone with some (minimally) verifiable academic credentials. But the result is a vast repository which is hard to navigate even for the experienced professional. Diving for pearls in the ocean can be fun for a diver but for an average swimmer that might be asking too much. Finding good work on arXiv is a bit like that. Ultimately the most reliable and credible papers on arXiv turn out to be those which have undergone some form of peer review and have been published in some journal.

The search continues for a viable model which can incorporate the best of both worlds. A model which can provide rewards for those who invest their time and skills in making the written word appear palatable to general audiences while at the same time keeping barriers for entry as low as possible for authors.

The work done by physicists, chemists, philosophers, social and other scientists (the archaeologists, historians and poets will forgive me for lumping them together in one category) is the shared heritage of humanity. No researcher who is willing to spend their youth and much of their mid-lives on exploring esoteric questions, which might not even bear fruit in their own lifetimes, does so out of a desire for monetary profit. Monks and scholars alike, survive on governmental and social charity. In turn, the wisdom and insights they gain from their spiritual and intellectual travels is meant for the benefit of all. Not just for the benefit of a few.

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One Response to Who are the real (copyright) thieves?

  1. Pingback: True Lies – A Critique of Jeffrey Beall | Freebits

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