Paywall: The Business of Scholarship – A review & discussion with Director Jason Schmitt

Academic Freedom

By: Lisa Hoover

Jason Schmitt
Jason Schmitt

Jason Schmitt, a professor at Clarkson University, recently released the documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, an indepth look at scholarly publishing. As Jason and I both work at Clarkson, I have been lucky enough to discuss the documentary and his work in this area multiple times now, leading to some fascinating discussions.

The documentary, which is well worth watching, delves into the large profit margins of the major scholarly publishers and the risings costs to subscribers, the growing open access movement, and the paradox posed by a system where much of the labor force (authors and editors) work for free, then have their institutions pay to access the content later.


The Publishers’ Advantage

Of the huge profit margins, Paywall interviewee Karla Cosgriff, Director of Free the Science said “Walmart is like this evil giant for a lot of people, but it’s 3% compared to 35% – I’ve kind of flipped my own attitudes now, Walmart’s not that bad compared to some of these other players.” “How is it OK for this whole industry to be making so much profit margin when there really aren’t any inputs that they have to pay for?”Corporate Profit Margins

“Workers don’t get paid,” said John Adler, Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. “I can think of no other industry where “the primary workers, the authors and reviewers, get paid nothing.”

Richard Price, Founder/CEO of points out that publishers have the “ability to charge whatever {they} want, and universities rarely if ever balk…reality is their faculty have to have access, and that’s a very powerful position for the businesses.”

Stuart Shieber, Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University says there is a “moral hazard” in scholarly communications. “The purchasers of a good are not the consumers of a good…the consumers are people like me who want to read the articles, but the purchasers aren’t me, I don’t tend to subscribe… the Harvard library spends huge amounts of money…so I am price insensitive because I don’t have to pay the bill.”

Authors think “they are reaching everyone who cares about their work,” said Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communications. “That’s false. They’re reaching everyone who is lucky enough to work at an institution that is wealthy enough to subscribe to that journal.”


The Tenure Process & Researcher Evaluation

Jason and I sat down recently to discuss this blog post, and we discussed the way the tenure process at most academic institutions supports the existing scholarly publishing landscape. “The tenure process is probably the biggest inhibiting force toward open access of scholarship. I think the separation that department heads have between them and the deans and the separation between the deans and the provosts, it creates a lot of autonomy, which in many ways is great. Except it creates also a system that is really difficult to pivot in any sort of quick turn just because of that autonomy,” Jason told me.

This sentiment was echoed by several of his interviewees. Andy Nobes, Programme Officer at  INASP, said that although most researchers say they are interested in open access, when asked where they choose to publish “because of the reward structure,” open access was still “near the bottom because they still need to progress their career.”

Kim Barrett, Distinguished Professor at the University of California San Diego said “academics are probably the most conservative people on the planet… academic structures are very slow to change.” “Our process for tenure now is the same as it was 150 years ago,” said David Evans, Executive Director at the National Science Teachers Association.

“So when you have especially older faculty that have climbed the ranks” and learned to view high impact journals as “the bastion of success and they aren’t usually willing to give up that notion they trained their whole career on.” “That creates an ingrained system,” where “the young scholar is taught to serve the same system that worked for their colleagues further up in the progression.” It “creates this kind of in perpetuity system that really needs to be addressed,” Jason explained.

“I always say, I speak out a lot on open access, and its nice that I can talk about this from this vantage point from where I have tenure, but is it fair to say to junior faculty oh you know you don’t need impact factors, they’re bad, they’re bogus, let’s just do open access when it could potentially harm her or his career. So I am always talking to more senior scholars when I say we need to create a system to embrace open access.”

Impact factors, which are commonly used to determine the quality of a journal, create similar problems. Catriona J. Maccallum, Director of Open Science at Hindawi Limited says “impact factor is a perverse metric which has somehow become entrenched in the evaluation system.” Furthermore, multiple rounds of peer review at multiple journals creates “wasted scientist time, reviewers time, editors time, ultimately at the expense of science and society.”

David Prosser, Executive Director at Research Libraries UK says “impact factors have perverted the whole system of scholarly communications, massively, even their founder Eugene Garfield has said they should not be used in this way.” “Then you must begin to wonder, that there is something wrong” and the “faux scientific nature of them…that they are accurate to 3 decimal places, well they’re clearly not,” he says.

Paul Peters, CEO at Hindawi Limited says “the way of addressing the problem is to start divorcing the assessment of an academic from the journals in which they are publishing, and … assess them “on their own, rather than on where that research has been published, I think you can then start to allow researchers to publish in journals that provide better service, better access.”


Equitable Access

Jason and I also talked about the comparisons between the United States and the rest of the world, especially with regard to equity of access to information. In Iceland all their research libraries are accessible to everyone nationwide. “Really eye opening to me to hear that they don’t have the same problems that a lot of other western countries do because – they still pay – they still pay a lot – but at least everyone still has access,” he told me. “Eye opening to think well gosh, it’s their public libraries, that then is associated with their research institutions, that are publicly funded, that then provides access to the broader public.That just seems like such an easy to digest system that its sometimes the complexity of access, especially in the US, create this have and have not.”

“The US has this education system that is propped up on the world stage as really admirable. And all of these developing nations, some of these large new education power houses, China comes to mind, look to the US to mimic this system, so much so that they build architecture that resembles Stanford and they try to create a capacity of researchers that rivals that of their western or US colleagues,” he said. “All fine and dandy except that if you are developing educational community and need to have credibility on the world stage…” when they “need scientific credibility, what is your driving force? Often it’s we need those high impact journals…because that is the force of credibility on the world stage.”

“As we are talking about open access and the importance of it, on the one hand, the other hand has China willing to pay the scholars that get that high impact $40-$50,000 cash bonuses – literally in cash not even checks that have taxes taken out – usually a quarter of salary. There is a dichotomy.” He goes on to explain that while China is invested in these impact factors, they are also supportive of Plan S and making open access more standard. “They are kind of in both camps,” he told me.

Several of his Paywall interviewees made similar points about equitable access and sharing resources. India, “an institute that has now treated 10 times as many patients…and they are able to get almost as good a results as he gets at Stanford, and they can do this between 5 and 10% the cost, to me that is genius,” said John Adler. “You would think…we would want to understand what is going on in India as much as they would want to see what we can do with all our marvels of technology.”

He also points out that of the papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine “40% of the authors came from 150 mile radius of Boston.” “Publishing is really an insiders game.”

Cable Green, Director of Open Education at Creative Commons said “we’ve got to make sure everyone has access, not just rich countries… everybody gets to read scientific research, think about it, and contribute their ideas.” When large portions of population don’t have access “the odds of us solving big problems are significantly lower.” “The public should be ashamed for allowing a model like that to exist,” he said.   

Lars Bjornshauge, managing director DOAJ references the strain between unequitable access and library ethics. “As a librarian I was in this awkward position that I had to block non-affiliated users to publicly funded researchers and that this is completely contrary to the mission of the library and the librarian.”

“If someone’s research is behind a paywall and it stops me from doing research in that field in my lifetime, how many more lifetimes do we have to wait for somebody else to be able to take that evolutionary step? Sometimes innovation is the right person in the right place at the right time, and all a paywall does is ensure that it is a lot less likely… to get something done,” said Tom Callaway, University Outreach Leader at Red Hat.


Public Knowledge & Democracy

One of the Paywall interviewees, Brian Nosek, mentions the issue of scholarship as conversation, which is one of the frames of the ACRL framework for higher education. I asked Jason about the impact these issues have on the intellectual freedom and growth of society. While these issues clearly prevent information from filtering down to non-academics who don’t have access to a library with what Jason describes as “big deal” subscription packages, he also points out that most of the public doesn’t realize this is an issue.

It is not part of the public consciousness that the government funds academic research that is often published in scholarly journals that are not readily available to the public. “Even though none academics may not be reading these articles, “they are still paying for them. Your tax dollars go towards government who then subsidize universities who then provides funds to libraries that then pay publishers through subscription fees,” said Nathan Hall, Associate Professor, McGill University.

This was addressed particularly poignantly by Paywall interviewee Callaway. Callaway describes trying to find information regarding his wife’s health problems. “You hit all these medical research pay walls…I can’t afford to spend the money to read a research paper only to discover it isn’t relevant to her situation,” he said. But “it could save her life.”

PaywallHowever, Jason also sees movement in the right direction. Donald Trump recently signed a mandate “that anything that is not sensitive starting this year within the US government the default is open. Broadly saying the US has signed recently that all their datasets are in fact open unless there is some rationale of not. That is going to have, I think, ripple effects for governments around the world because you are talking unfathomable amounts of content that can be used for data analysis and data analytics. Hopefully other government agencies follow suit.”

I asked Jason about what I saw as parallels between the lack of access to scholarly articles today and the historical access to information prior to the invention of the printing press, when only the wealthy had access to information and much of it was filtered through authorities like the church. “Have we not moved as far toward equitable access as we might think?” I asked him.

“I think we have actually moved backward,” he said, pointing out that the move toward electronic access changes how the public can access information. A member of the public cannot just pick up a book or a print journal off the shelf anymore; they need an institutional login and password, in most cases. This arguably makes information harder for the public to access. The all-print Linda Hall Library, discussed in Paywall, is an an anomaly now.

On the flip side, an increasing use of other metrics to measure the impact of scholarship is leading toward an increasing democratization of information, as Jason and I also discussed. Alternative metrics often look at less traditional measured of scholarly impact; for example, Altmetric tracks sources of attention like policy documents, news, blogs, social media, Wikipedia, and YouTube. Jason mentioned the power of Twitter specifically; much of the scholarly conversation is moving toward Twitter, with scholars sharing papers and ideas through Tweets. At the same time, this allows the public access to this scholarly conversation, if they choose to partake. Similarly, Karla Cosgriff sees open access as “a way to democratize information… to reduce disparity and promote equality.”

I asked Jason about how the metrics, especially informal ones, that we use to measure quality in open access journals can disadvantage authors from the global south. For example, is a focus on using proper English problematic? Jason explained that under Plan S, the Directory of Open Access Journals will increasingly be an indication of quality, and they are actively moving to de-emphasize things like proper English that disadvantage authors from the rest of the world.

In the United States, we often resort to inter-library loan to borrow what we don’t have access to, but this is an imperfect solution. Copyright limits the amount of borrowing that can be done through inter-library loan, and not everything is eligible for borrowing. Furthermore, it isn’t always an option in other countries.


Sci-Hub & Intellectual Property

Paywall also features an interview with the founder of Sci-Hub, so I asked Jason about how figures like the Sci-Hub founder and Aaron Shwartz, who died by suicide in 2013 following a legal battle over criminal charges stemming from a incident at MIT in which he downloaded articles from JSTOR illegally over the course of several weeks, reflect on the balance between intellectual freedom and intellectual property rights. He felt that these activists shed light on the “power” this type of information – and the people who share it – has.

Copyright Jason Schmitt, Paywall Alt-tag: Alexandra Elbakyan, Creator of Sci-Hub, still from Paywall documentary
Alexandra Elbakyan, Creator of Sci-Hub

Alexandra Elbakyan, Creator of Sci-Hub said “Sci-Hub provided access to this tremendous mass of knowledge, it made it open,” “so you see, they are not concerned with someone stealing from the scientific publishers they are concerned with the formal breaking of the law” “even if the law is absurd.” She points out that Elseiver’s slogan is “Making Uncommon Knowledge Common,” but says “Elseiver has not mastered this job well, and Sci-Hub is helping them, so it seems, to fulfill their mission.”

“A lot of people don’t feel guilty about using these resources… because the industry at present is making too much off of the people who are giving of themselves, doing great research, they’re being taken advantage of,” said Nathan Hall, Associate Professor at McGill University and Creator of @Academicssay.

With regard to copyright, Jason pointed out that while the publishers care about copyright, the authors rarely do. “They don’t have a monetary interest” in the published paper, he said. The real monetary value to them is the ability to include it on their CV to help with promotion and tenure.

Therefore, the traditional copyright theory that protection of intellectual property is necessary to stimulate creation doesn’t really apply as much in the academic world. The authors would publish regardless, he argues. The benefit in intellectual property protection accrue to the publishers.

Sam Gershman, Assistant Professor at Harvard University also points to the benefits to publishers of free laborers. With regard to take down notices for copyright infringement, he believes publishers are “trying to tread softly” because they “don’t want to create a wave of anger that will completely remove the source of free labor they depend on so critically.”


The Future

“So,” I asked Jason, “what do you think the future looks like? He thinks that by 2020 we will see a significant shift toward open access and that things like Plan S and the recent choice by the University of California to drop Elsevier subscriptions will lead to more changes. “So you think we are at a kind of watershed moment?” I asked. “Yes, I do,” he replied. He also argued for a shift toward a more pay-as-needed model. “You can buy a lot of articles at $30 each” with the money you save by dropping these “big deal” packages, he argues.

Paywall interviewee John Wilbanks, Chief Commons Officer at Sage Bionetworks agrees. “We’re in this interstitial period…we are at the edge of falling off the cliff music fell off of with Napster, that’s what Sci-Hub tells me.” “That’s a market failure.”

Jason would also like to see a shift in how we communicate about these issues. He pointed toward the practice of non-disclosure agreements as part of “big deal” packages that create “too many little pockets” of libraries who can’t communicate.

He want to see more libraries talking to each other. Likewise, he argues that there needs to be better communication about these problems between libraries and the academic departments on their campuses. Rather than trying to focus on the upper administration, he suggested “horizontal” conversation between departments.

While the underlying issues raised by Paywall are likely not new to most librarians, the wide ranging interviews and, in particular, the inclusion of non-western perspectives makes it a must-watch for anyone interested in the future of scholarly communication, journal subscription models, and open access.


Lisa HooverLisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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