UC research should be free

Michael B. Eisen is a personal hero of mine. Co-founder of the biggest Open Access journal PLOS ONE, he campaigns every day to liberate research publications from being imprisoned behind the ridiculous paywalls of the publishers. This op-ed neatly summarizes the case for open access in the University of California system: 

It is a felony to share knowledge created by the faculty, staff and students of the University of California with the public.

Wait. What?

In 2011, online rights activist Aaron Swartz was accused of using the MIT computer network to download millions of scholarly journal articles with the intent of freely sharing them with the public. Federal prosecutors aggressively pursued charges against him, and, earlier this month, with a trial looming, Swartz killed himself.

The Justice Department has faced intense scrutiny for its senseless decision to turn this victimless act into a major case, but the real culprits in this tragedy are all the universities across the world that allowed articles that rightfully belong to the public to fall into private hands in the first place.

Every day, faculty, staff and students of the University of California hand over control of papers describing their ideas and discoveries to publishers, most of whom immediately lock them up behind expensive paywalls. They do this not only with the university’s knowledge— they do it with its complicity.

That the public does not have unlimited access to the intellectual output of academic scholars and scientists is one of the greatest-ever failures of vision and leadership from the men and women who run our research universities — all the more so at a publicly funded institution like the University of California.

When the Internet began to take off in the mid-1990’s, it created the opportunity to do something scholars had been dreaming of for millennia — to gather all of the writings of scholars past and present together in a single online public library — a free, globally accessible version of the ancient library in Alexandria.

But 20 years on and we are barely any closer to achieving this goal. Instead of posting their work online, scholars send them to journals, most of which condition publication on receipt of the authors’ copyright. These journals then exercise their exclusive rights to distribute these works by demanding payment for access to their collections.

If you have not yet published in a scholarly journal, you may not realize just how absurd this transaction is. Scholars at the UC system and every other research university on the planet voluntarily hand over control of their work to publishers, work that the same universities have to immediately turn around and buy back. And this is not a minor transaction — revenue for scholarly journals exceeds an estimated $9 billion per year.