Open Access by the front door?

Elsevier is again trying to stop, by court action, the egregiously free-booting and arguably illegal efforts of sites such as Sci-Hub and LibGen that distribute without permission millions of PDF files containing copyright research papers taken from the Science Direct databases. Science Direct is the subscription service from which Elsevier generates billions of revenue each year. Elsevier has won such cases before and succeeded in closing down some of the sites and domains used by these organisations last year. But such victories are pyrhhic, more like whack-a-mole than a knock-out blow, and the attention of the court case brings more traffic to the infringing services. Elsevier cannot directly target the computers and databases that drive the services because they are based in countries that do not recognise the intellectual property laws of the US and Europe. Whether you regard the activities of Sci-Hub as the aggressive and systematic liberation of scientific knowledge or a matter of clearly unwarranted filching of intellectual property, I think we can agree that it is a form of ‘backdoor’ open access without the explicit cooperation or permission of the authors, editors and publishers.

While the development of services such as Sci-Hub and LibGen seem like a potent and disruptive threat to many publishers, there may be a bigger problem developing. Computer geeks in Moscow or Kazakhstan are one thing, the bigger issue is that the researchers and scholars who publish these articles are also making them freely available, often as PDFs from their own web pages. Even in a field as careful and unfashionable as philosophy (in fact not always so careful and sometimes very fashion-conscious), many of the best active philosophers are making all, or almost all of their papers freely available from their own web pages. This is immensely convenient if one needs to get some familiarity with the social and political philosophy of Philip Petit, the epistemology and writings about vagueness from Timothy Williamson, or Peter Carruthers’ interdisciplinary work on evolution and cognition. These are philosophers at the top of their game and if anyone is interested in their work these reading lists are a convenient way of gaining good familiarity with their research. Thirty years ago, it would not have been at all easy to access the current research of then leading titans (Donald Davidson, David Lewis, Elizabeth Anscombe or Peter Strawson, for example). This fact incidentally means that the relatively hard to locate work of these earlier generations may be neglected.

Philosophy is not the most obvious subject to pick for this exercise, medicine, geology or economics may be disciplines with a broader extra-university appeal. There should be no doubt that making this research work more widely available is from almost every point of view a good thing. It is especially a good thing for the authors as researchers, since it means that their writing gets prompt and efficient exposure, that their research is explicitly associated with their university positions (the web pages from which files may be downloaded are most often hosted by their employer), and it is likely that such open and rapid publication pleases their funders and will help in the search for new research grants. It may not be quite such a good thing that such personal publication perhaps unfairly supports the work of leading and already established scholars, and it may tip the balance in favour of the most productive researchers (so favouring those with many papers to disseminate) at the expense of more careful and deliberate publication records. But such challenges are now pervasive and perhaps inevitable given the way that academic reputations are made and research contracts awarded.

We might call this Open Access by the front door, though in many cases it is close to what used to be called ‘green’ Open Access. But the idea with ‘green’ Open Access was that the author/researcher would archive his final draft, his pre-publication version; without the publisher’s copy-editing input, without final typography and pagination, and yet most authors now seem to upload at least the PDF proof supplied by the publisher, and often a scan or photo-copy of the finished article. For this reason we might see it as Open Access by the front door, leaving it for Sci-hub and its allies to rustle, as it were backdoor PDFs from the final publisher aggregations.

I am not sure what academic publishers can do about this explosion of self-publishing of research activity by academic authors, but there are possible systematic failings. PDFs have their limitations and there are security issues if all scholarly communication relies on the transmission of research by such a file format, wherein small errors or differences may be hard to detect and easily concealed. Preservation and permanence go out of the window if authors become the font of editions and messily inconsistent archives will proliferate. One thing that is lost when distribution depends overwhelmingly on the author’s self-distribution, is that the merit and the unifying of books that are multi-authored around a key topic, will be lost. In fast moving fields research often collects into multi-authored works, where there is genuine dialogue and balanced coverage. Books of this type will not thrive, indeed they will disappear if all distribution is author-centred. Another crucial aspect of publishing initiative is the series, collection or library of publisher-commissioned works. This is very much an area of interest to Exact Editions with our new focus on publishing Collections of books. Readers, researchers, and students often need to centre their reading and their digital investigation and searching on a class of books, or a grouping of introductions or subject surveys. Such Collections need their own branded and curated form of digital distribution, and it is such series and groupings that will find a proper vehicle through the Exact Editions platform.

Carcanet covers a collection of 100+