The Scandal of Closed Access to Taxpayer Funded Research

On January 21, Timothy Gowers of Cambridge announced he would no longer publish papers in Elsevier’s journals or serve as a referee or editor for them. This boycott has now been joined by thousands of other researchers. (I don’t referee any more for Elsevier, though I have in the past, and I certainly won’t be sending any papers there.) Thanks to the furore created by three Fields Medal winners–Timothy Gowers, Terence Tao, Wendelin Werner–participating in the boycott, many now know what academics have known for a very long time: academic publishing is a scandal. Indeed, it is more than a scandal; it is a racket which is nothing short of criminal. Before we go any further, here is a number to chew on: in 2010, ‘Elsevier reported a 36 percent profit on revenues of $3.2 billion.’

How does this system work? Consider this. Elsevier, or for that matter, any journal publishing house, publishes ‘content.’ Academic content, the results of research conducted by university academics the world over; much of this research is funded by taxpayer money. This research is written up in papers, and sent to journal editorial boards for review. These boards are staffed by unpaid academics, who, after preliminary review, send out papers to be reviewed by other unpaid academics. (When I say ‘unpaid,’ I mean they are not compensated by the journals for their work.) The paper, if accepted by the referee and the editor, is then sent back to the authors who typesets it, prepares a camera-ready copy, and sends it back for publishing. The publishing house, after making authors sign forms handing over copyright to them, then prints the article in the latest issue of the relevant journal, and sells subscriptions to that journal for thousands of dollars per year to libraries at the same universities where their editorial board and reviewing staff work.

So, this material is not open-access any more; it is closed behind a ‘pay-wall.’ If you don’t have a paid subscription, you don’t get to view the published research. If your library, at say, a public university like the City University of New York, is experiencing budget problems, and library funding suffers cutbacks, well, tough tits. You don’t get to view the published research. If you, as a professor, or graduate student, decided to freely distribute the papers, you may be embroiled in copyright infringement disputes. If you are a taxpayer that funded this research, but cannot afford the journal subscription, well, tough tits again. Go rustle up the bucks. Knowledge should be open and available to all, you say? Talk to my accountant; because the face, it ain’t listening.

This is a gigantic rip-off, a racket, a robbery. It is exploitation–primarily of the academic promotion and tenure process and taxpayer money–on a scale that beggars belief. The stench from this should make every thinking person hold his or her nose. And act to make sure this cannot persist.

Right now, the US House and Senate are considering the Federal Research Public Access Act; this will bring about ‘pervasive open access,’ especially to articles reporting on research paid for by taxpayers.  For your own sake and for the sake of researchers, students, teachers, doctors, and the like everywhere, please support it.  A ‘We the People’ petition is up and available for signing at Please sign, spread the word, and end this racket.

2 thoughts on “The Scandal of Closed Access to Taxpayer Funded Research

  1. An incidental point from Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology (highly recommended, a fast read):

    “The dodgy marketing of university presses and the massive costs of journals make written scholarship increasingly inaccessible even to scholars, and publication therefore serves as professional endorsement rather than as a process by which works are made public.”

    1. Karl,

      Thanks for the pointer – great quote, spot on. Publication in those venues merely ensures promotion and tenure – doesn’t seem to have much with scholarship.

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