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Academic Spring: phase two

from Edward Fullbrook

In case you have not been watching this Spring’s coming, since the spectacular Harvard development of two weeks ago, another large tree, the UK government, has bloomed.  Its Minister of State for Universities and Science announced last week that beginning in the near future all UK publicly funded academic research will be available on the Web free of charge to anyone anywhere in the world.  This is not a politician’s pipe dream; Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, has already been hired to set it up. 

In effect, the right-of-centre government minister said enough is enough, that this is a business model too odious to be tolerated.  No longer will The Big Five (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, Sage and Francis and Taylor) be allowed to stop society from freely accessing research funded by the UK taxpayer. 

What, when combined with Harvard’s, are the implications of this new initiative?   Six points come to mind.  

  1. Papers by British and Harvard authors appearing in paywall journals will on average have a significantly larger readership than those of non-British, non-Harvard authors.  Experiments have shown that removing the paywall from an individual paper increases its readership by about 250 per cent.
  2. Will the paywall journals respond by rejecting submissions from British and Harvard authors which previously they would have accepted?  
  3. Regarding the Academic Spring, what communications have The Big Five sent the editors of their journals?  Given that billions of dollars of annual Big Five profits and billions more of share value are now at stake, their response will at the very least be substantial.   
  4. For how long will it remain politically feasible for other democratically elected governments not to follow the United Kingdom’s example?
  5. Within the academic community and divisions thereof, how far away are we from reaching the point where it will no longer be considered ethically acceptable to publish in or review for a paywall journal owned, for example, by Elsevier?  Economics – notoriously disregarding of ethical standards – is probably still years away, but some fields, like mathematics, are already nearing the tipping point.  It was mathematicians who launched The Cost of Knowledge and drafted its manifesto, and already over 11,000 academics have publicly signed up for their boycott.
  6. How long before the share prices of The Big Five start to plummet?  According to the stock dealing services, who, unlike academic economists, are closely following the Academic Spring, not very long.  For example, even before the Harvard and UK initiatives, Seeking Alpha was advising investors to avoid the stocks of journal publishers and for speculators to short them.  Its long article on 10 April begins, “One of the worlds best business model is about to be ‘disintermediated’.”  And it concludes:

So we think that a short position on the end of one of the most scandalous, but also most profitable business models around could pay-off, long-term. No immediate heroics are to be expected, although one could argue that one should short these companies in the name of free access to the science that we as taxpayers fund.  (emphasis added)

So far, with few exceptions, economists have maintained silence regarding what even The Economist calls an “absurd and unjust” practice.  Will the economics profession be the last profession to speak out and take a stand against this “scandalous” business model?

Background reading

  1. May 7, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Seems free-market-worshiping economists just can’t figure out where to worship sometimes.

  2. Ignacio
    May 7, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Just excellent! ¡Bravo por el Reino Unido!

  3. May 7, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Reblogged this on Gabriel Rega and commented:
    Pequena atualização sobre o tema que já tratei aqui. O governo do Reino Unido contratou um co-fundador da Wikipedia para colocar toda pesquisa futura que for paga com o dinheiro do contribuinte britânico, livre, grátis, na internet.

  4. Manuel Angeles
    May 8, 2012 at 1:40 am

    Those of us working in small places in “emerging” economies, far from research libraries of significance, have come to depend on the Internet for information sources, so we especially welcome the Harvard / UK move. I join Ignacio: “bravo por el RU!”

  5. Alice
    May 8, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    First the large corporate publishers will lobby intensely, mount a campaign against the unfair acts of the government to reduce their ability to make a profit, then they will sue, then they will bribe other politicians or political parties with any influence to reverse the decision, and god knows what other ugly behaviour and this academic spring could run into a mud puddle in a very short time. Only if more universities get on board with this one will they have a hope of fighting these mighty publishing house empires.
    Nothing is sacred any more except the corporations rights.

  6. May 10, 2012 at 12:05 am

    For the so-called “Third World” amateur researchers (wait, I DO have a degree or two, I should use them) the demise of Gigapedia (the somewhat illegal repository of electronic books) on the wake of the Megaupload case was a big slap in the face. Maybe when you close an illegal output for those that cannot pay for your product the public pressure starts to add up and then something like this happens. No wonder why Microsoft does not seem to care if most copies of Windows are legal or not.

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