Evaluating Open Access – Should All Research Be Free and the Case of Alexandra Elbakyan?

Dear Commons Community,

Kate Murphy has an op-ed piece in the New York Times today focusing on a question of great importance to the academic community, namely:  Should all research be free?  She specifically comments on the mission of Alexandra Elbakyan,  a graduate student from Kazakhstan, who illegally leaked millions of documents of scientific and research articles.

“While Elbakyan didn’t reveal state secrets, she took a stand for the public’s right to know by providing free online access to just about every scientific paper ever published, on topics ranging from acoustics to zymology.

Her protest against scholarly journals’ paywalls has earned her rock-star status among advocates for open access, and has shined a light on how scientific findings that could inform personal and public policy decisions on matters as consequential as health care, economics and the environment are often prohibitively expensive to read and impossible to aggregate and datamine.

“Realistically only scientists at really big, well-funded universities in the developed world have full access to published research,” said Michael Eisen, a professor of genetics, genomics and development at the University of California, Berkeley, and a longtime champion of open access.

“The current system slows science by slowing communication of work, slows it by limiting the number of people who can access information and quashes the ability to do the kind of data analysis” that is possible when articles aren’t “sitting on various siloed databases.”

Journal publishers collectively earned $10 billion last year, much of it from research libraries, which pay annual subscription fees ranging from $2,000 to $35,000 per title if they don’t buy subscriptions of bundled titles, which cost millions. The largest companies, like Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, typically have profit margins of over 30 percent, which they say is justified because they are curators of research, selecting only the most worthy papers for publication.

Moreover, they orchestrate the vetting, editing and archiving of articles.

That is the argument Elsevier made, supported by a raft of industry amicus briefs, when it filed suit against Ms. Elbakyan, resulting in an injunction last fall against her file-sharing website, Sci-Hub. “It’s as if somehow stealing content is justifiable if it’s seen as expensive, and I find that surprising,” said Alicia Wise, director of universal access at Elsevier. “It’s not as if you’d walk into a grocery store and feel vindicated about stealing an organic chocolate bar as long as you left the Kit Kat bar on the shelf.”

Ms. Murphy goes on to explore both sides of the argument.  

The issue gets complicated because while many academics support open access to their work, they still need publication vehicles whether electronic and/or paper to bring their work to the education and research communities. In my own case, I have been an associate editor of an open-access journal (Online Learning Journal originally the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN)) since its inception in 1996.  My colleagues and I are proud of the scholarly articles and resources we have provided over the past twenty years.  However, we had the Sloan Foundation, the Sloan Consortium, and now the Online Learning Consortium financially supporting our efforts. Without this support, the journal might not have continued to be in existence at least not in its present form. The article by Ms. Murphy covers a number of these issues well and is worth a read for those of us in academia who publish and rely on scholarly journals (free or for-profit) to disseminate our work.



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