Tearing Down the Academic Paywall

There are cracks in the great academic paywall. I’m not talking about academic article torrents, though they do exist (I will not link to them here). I’m thinking of how many humanists are cultivating online personas and attempting to bypass the paywall in a number of ways–by blogging about their research or getting permission from journals to share their articles publicly. Optimistically, this is a sign of contemporary scholars’ dedication to openness and democracy. Pessimistically, it is a sign of the pressure on the humanities to justify its existence to the public. Times are difficult when the President of the MLA appeals to CNN.com readers by insisting that “Having strong skills in another language may give you an edge when applying for a job.”

Academics’ efforts to bypass paywalls intensified following the recent suicide of programmer, Reddit co-founder, and hacktivist Aaron Swartz. JSTOR, the database whose articles Swartz allegedly tried to share freely, actually led the charge to bring down paywalls even before Swartz’s passing. In tribute to Swartz, many academics shared their previously-paywalled scholarship publicly, using the hashtag #PDFtribute (which in turn spawned pdftribute.org).

I support the ideal of open access to academic work, but I think that it is worth considering what it would mean to remove academic paywalls when most journals and databases have paid staff.

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In a time when adjunctification is rampant, can we really justify de-monetizing all journals and databases? Journal contributors are unpaid to begin with, so for most academics removing paywalls translates into no monetary loss, only a gain in publicity. Yet, like it or not, academic journals, databases, and supportive software companies all make up an industry with paid staff. I personally work for an open-access journal, The Journal of Interactive Technology and PedagogyAt this juncture, our staff do not receive stipends or course release time. In an ideal world, the staff of every journal would receive some kind of support from their institution; yet, this is more likely to be possible at colleges with large endowments, meaning that the playing field could potentially be even more uneven with the removal of paywalls. Again, while I am enthusiastic about the possibilities of open-access scholarship, I also have to point out that the system of labor in the academy is already precarious, so that any new model should avoid exploitative labor practices.

Liberal education itself is broken, torn between the “the life of the mind” and the reality of stifling student debt and increased adjuntification. Fewer students are majoring in English: in 1971 7.6% of conferred degrees were in English, while in 2006 the figure was 3.7%. From a student’s point of view, at least, it seems as though the life of the mind doesn’t pay off.

Neither paywalls nor college enrollment limits can block the natural flow of ideas, especially today. Ideas are viral, they interbreed and sometimes occur spontaneously in different locations. We can see this even in the natural world when separate species independently evolve the same traits–what is known as convergent evolution. Ideas don’t really belong to anyone. They are a product of the accumulation of a variety of factors–social factors, economic factors, previous concepts/discoveries, etc. This is as true in the humanities as it is in the sciences. We often like to focus on one “genius,” one breakthrough moment, when most discoveries or inventions were many centuries and lifetimes in the making. For instance, Thomas Edison was only able to achieve so much success by outsourcing his work to others–to his “muckers.” In my opinion, in the humanities the “superstars” aren’t always the most original thinkers–often they are simply able to synthesize and express preexisting ideas in novel and exciting ways.

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Academics in the humanities like to pretend that their ideas are theirs. However, there is no legal basis for such a belief. Intellectual property law doesn’t protect ideas; it only protects the specific expression of an idea. As the U.S. Copyright office states, “Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.”

Now that many academics have made a public turn and are on Twitter, the dissemination, adoption, and critique of ideas within academic discourse is instantaneous and publicly visible:

In the field of English, it seems as though we are already talking and interacting in public and online spaces above (or through) the paywall. The purpose of an academic paywall isn’t to protect authors’ ideas. Rather, it’s an outgrowth of academic labor. In our push to make academic discourse and higher education more open, we also have to consider what the ramifications might be for an academic system of labor that seems to be growing more unequal.

In summary, I suppose that what I’m getting at with this post is that paywalls, tuition, and the intellectual ownership of ideas are unnatural structures that are contrary to the natural spread of ideas and which have grown out of higher education, which, as much as we hate to discuss it as such, is an industry. The new openness of scholarly communication serves to highlight this unnaturalness as well as the tensions between values such as “free thought” and “fair labor,” “ownership” and “openness,” or “prestige” and “access.”

Comments

  1. Ingvar Thorleifsson says:

    I think this is a fair review of the current situation with attention given to both sides of the argument, not to common in these discussions.

    I am a student and right now I am researching my master thesis. I am fortunate enough that my university has extensive access to journals so I am in no way lacking in my access to information.
    However, I can’t help but to think that those not affiliated with a paying university would have access to less than 10% of the articles that I have access to without paying, sometimes up to 30$ for a single article.
    This is widely known and argued but my main point is however the age of some of the articles behind paywalls. My thesis continues a string of research performed in the seventies and eighties and are still being priced out at 20-30$ a pop.

    There has got to be a middle ground to this debate by initiating a limited time in which an article can remain behind a paywall, preferably only a few years. Those who already pay for access will still want access to the newest research and therefore pay. and those that come maybe 2 years later out of curiosity will be able to review and access the same thing.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think it would be great if there was such a thing as database pricing for individuals. I asked our graduate school librarian to estimate how much the databases cost per student, and she said that it came to about 100 dollars, and this is for a huge variety of databases and ebooks in multiple subject areas. Honestly, I think that if databases offered reasonable individual subscriptions, they and the journals would make more money. I guess that journals, however, might object for fear that they would lose individual subscriptions. Yet I think that fear wouldn’t be very well-founded. It will be interesting to see what ramifications the new ruling about publicly-funded research having to be made public will have for journals and databases.

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