February 29, 2024

Documentary makes powerful plea for open access publishing

Many academics do not understand how the system works

Nothing warms the cockles of the heart like righteous outrage, so quite a few readers of BioEdge will be interested in Paywall, a documentary on academic publishing. Its argument is simple. Knowledge should be free. Academic journals aren’t free. Therefore the system is broken. Why does a US$25.2 billion industry coast along with profit margins of about 30% — when an “evil corporation” like Walmart only has a profit margin of 3%? The world needs open access publishing!

The attack on the current model may be unfair, but you can’t say that it isn’t provocative and fascinating. Paywall: the business of scholarship is well worth watching – if you can organise a screening, because it costs individuals US$39.95 to download.

Here’s what The Lancet (whose publisher, Elsevier, is one of the main villains targeted by director Jason Schmitt) had to say about Paywall:

The film could … have an impact on academics, many of whom still do not understand how profitable publishers are and how academic institutions could—if they worked together—make science available to all and retrieve the profits for more research.

More openness in science, the talking heads make clear, means better scholarship, more innovation, higher quality, more equality, and a better chance of solving fundamental problems like climate change, poverty, and the pushing back of disease. That publishers are making huge profits from restricting access to research is not a marginal problem, says István Rév, a professor of history and political science from Budapest, it's holding back the solution to fundamental problems. Indeed, he adds, the profits of publishers are one of the causes of rapidly rising tuition fees. Some colleges are having to close in part because of the continuing high cost of journals. “It's a catastrophe”, says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication and director of the Harvard Open Access Project.

Creative commons
academic publishing
ethics of publishing
open access publishing