Why Isn't Academic Research Free to Everyone?

Scholarly articles, filled with indubitable knowledge and analysis, only exist for the general public behind pricey paywalls. So one lecturer is advocating for them to be free of charge.

Global Panorama/Flickr

A blurb below the search bar on Google Scholar tells you to "stand on the shoulders of giants." The giants in question here are academic writers, and Google Scholar does provide searchable access to essays on a dizzying array of topics, from governance in post-genocide Rwanda to the ethics of using polygraph tests on juveniles.

Except for one problem: Most of these articles are paywalled. You need to have university access to read them—or else pay what’s often a substantial fee. Martin Paul Eve, a lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of English & Journalism in the United Kingdom, wants to change that.

In his book Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies, and the Future, he explains why, and how, research in the humanities should be publicly available for free. Eve spoke to me about his recent book, copyright laws, and why plagiarism isn’t a major concern.

Noah Berlatsky: Why should academic articles be available for free? Why shouldn't academic writers have the same copyright protection as other writers?

Martin Paul Eve: We've spent a long time building mechanisms within the academy that aim to free researchers from the demands of market populism. In other words: Researchers are, in the theoretical ideal model (although the growth of precarious adjunct labor undermines it), paid a salary to produce work. They do not need to sell thousands of copies to earn a living.

This gives academics freedom of enquiry. They don't have to research things that will only sell. They can afford to (and they do) give away their work for free. The desire is to be read and valued so that one can get an academic post, get tenure, get promoted, etc.

Copyright, on the other hand, is a time-limited monopoly on the right to sell the result of intellectual labor. Because academics do not need to sell their work, they also don't need the economic protections of copyright. Publishers do (if they sell work) but academics don't.

What academics want is reputational protection. They want to be cited. Open licensing provides a way in which academics can let others use their work more liberally than if it were covered totally by copyright but always with the demand for attribution, which fuels their systems of prestige, hiring, etc.

We designed a system to free academics from the market. We then came up with a model for research dissemination that entailed selling work (i.e., is market based).

Berlatsky: You point out that the sciences have many more free or un-paywalled journals than the humanities. Is that because there's more of a public and business interest in scientific research? And I guess more broadly, is there really enough interest outside the academy in humanities work to make free access much of an issue one way or the other?

Eve: To the first question: perhaps. There's definitely a drive by center-right governments to open up scientific research so that it can be commercially exploited. It's far harder to envisage what such commercial exploitation of humanities research might look like (although the "cultural industries" are all sites of external value extraction).

On the second point: I think there is enough interest outside the academy, but that is only half of the story.

For the public: We claim that the humanities have value in a democracy for the ability to spur critical thinking in the liberal humanist tradition. I can't see how the university can fulfill that role if people come to university for three years [or four years in the U.S.] and are then kicked out without access. [Large portions] of the population now have humanities degrees and enjoyed their time studying. There isn't ready exposure in the wider world to the work, though, for them to continue this at the moment.

Even if you don't buy that line, though, open access is not just about the public. The cost of subscribing to all research journals needed has risen by 300 percent above inflation since 1986 while academic library budgets have only risen by 79 percent total.

This means that even Harvard has cancelled subscriptions on the basis of price. Some publishers make a great deal of profit from this. So, going back to my original point, we now have a system where researchers are free to investigate what they like—independent of the market—but they disseminate through channels that frequently deny their fellow researchers access to material for market-based reasons.

Berlatsky: You talk about various methods for funding journals if paywalls are taken away, including having authors pay a substantial fee (which is done in the sciences, where the fees are usually paid for from the author's grants). I wonder though … why don't universities have more money to subsidize their presses? Tuition fees are skyrocketing, the use of cheaper adjunct faculty is on the rise. It seems like universities should have a ton of money. Are university presses just not a very big priority?

Eve: You are right (although this situation of tuition fees is not the case worldwide: Germany has just reverted to a fully state-funded solution, for instance). University presses are often not seen as a priority, though, from an administration point of view.

From their perspective the options look like this: 1) We can pile loads of money into our (new?) press to subsidize production while also paying for access to all the other work our researchers need or 2) We can not pay for the press and instead just pay for access to all the other work our researchers need.

In other words, it looks to administrators like an additional cost rather than part of a systematic attempt to change the culture and fix what is essentially an unsustainable system.

Some universities are very rich. It is a mistake, though, to universally categorize them as such. Many institutions worldwide—certainly in the U.K.—are balanced precariously and even if they understand the transformation that might be made by funding scholarly communications from the supply side, they struggle to find the cash-in-hand to fund enterprises like university presses that could change it.

Berlatsky: In your book you argue that academic articles and books should not just be free, but should be available for republication by anyone, or even available for partial reuse. What sort of reuse are you envisioning? And couldn't there be a problem with plagiarism?

Eve: The current system of fair use is being read in increasingly restricted terms. For instance, using an epigraph from another academic's work is now disallowed by some publishers.

We also cannot distribute repographically produced copies of work for teaching, even within the university, without a (paid-for) license. Likewise, we cannot re-write research articles and reproduce them on Wikipedia without extensive changes, lowering the public reach of our work. We cannot translate work into other languages, even where no commercial translation exists or will exist … The list goes on.

I don't think that plagiarism is so much of a concern. Plagiarism specifically means passing off someone else's work as your own. All of the licenses that have been suggested explicitly state that re-used work must be credited to the original author (without implying endorsement). Beyond that, we also have institutional sanctions. If another academic re-used my work without citing me, he or she would likely lose his or her post.

Berlatsky: One way in which academics can make their work free is by sharing their expertise through blog posts, or for that matter through Twitter. If there are barriers to making academic papers available, would informal avenues be one way for academics to get their work and ideas out? Or what are the limitations of that option?

Eve: I am very much in favor of broader dissemination through blogging and social media. It's a great way to spread the word and the conversations that ensue are usually excellent. However, it doesn't come with the reputational returns that academics usually want and is seen as an "add-on" that has to be done amid an academic's already-busy schedule. In other words: The social structures of the academy don't reward it as an activity—and that's often very hard to change.

It's also worth saying that activities such as these do not help the academy fix the
budgetary crisis of [its] libraries. To alter that, a more radical solution is needed.