Paywall: The Business of Scholarship

Last night, as part of Open Access Week, the Dartmouth Library and Open Dartmouth Working Group hosted a screening of the documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship with an introduction and Q and A with director/producer Jason Schmitt.

In keeping with the message of his work, Schmitt made the documentary itself openly accessible. There were no fees for screening the work, which can be streamed directly from the website or downloaded. As he said himself, what better way to have your work seen than to make it freely available and easily accessible? Released on September 5th, the documentary has hundreds of screenings worldwide.

Schmitt introduced the documentary with a comparison to the music industry. His story began with Napster, an MP3 sharing system and one of the first ways to digitally pirate music. Schmitt noted that when he had been a young worker for Atlantic Records, one of his first jobs out of college, he and his peers never thought that Napster would overtake the CD. “The MP3s sounded so tinny, they didn’t compare to the depth of sound you could get with a CD.” However, just as it states in the documentary, humans are terrible at predicting the future. Napster was the first indication of how digital technology would change¬† the music industry, resulting in modern legal methods of streaming such as Spotify. Like the music industry, digital technology that allows for instant access to information has the potential to change the publishing models. As with the case of Napster, some of the routes opened aren’t legal.

Although currently in hiding at an undisclosed location due to risk of extradition from a lawsuit, Sci-Hub creator Alexandra Elbakyan was interviewed for the documentary. Sci-Hub provides free downloads of research articles that are often obtained illegally, and remains highly controversial. While the views of Elbakyan seem to favor Sci-Hub as a solution to the problem,¬†Schmitt referred to SciHub as a “crutch” that people are using due to being unable to access information; SciHub isn’t the solution, but the result of being unable to easily and legally access knowledge in an age where the tools exist to do so.

The main issue the documentary addressed was the inability to access research due to paywalls. Publishers utilize publicly funded information and profit from it. While making a profit isn’t evil, the rates at which the prices for journal subscriptions are increasing make it an extremely expensive endeavor that even universities struggle to meet, which can result in inability for a university to get access to a journal. Even worse off are those without access to university resources, who face paywalls invisible to those whose university allows them to freely access journal subscriptions. The documentary primarily focuses on Elsevier as an example of the for-profit, paywall-based publishing system model. Schmitt added that while Elsevier tends to be the scape goat because they make the most profit, they certainly aren’t the only ones doing it.

Open access publishing addresses these accessibility issues by making articles funded by the public legally free and easily accessible to anyone with internet access. It begins to break down some of the barriers for people trying to obtain knowledge, so that the work of researchers goes to those who are interested and not just those with the privilege to afford it themselves or through an institution.

Having traveled the world for screenings, Schmitt visited Iceland and learned that the library connected to the University was also open to the general public. While this didn’t solve the issue of skyrocketing journal fees, it made it so that everyone had access to those subscriptions, not just those with the privilege of attending a University. Europe itself is adopting Plan S, which intends to mandate that all scientists funded will have to make their research free and available to the public.

The Q and A session addressed one of the issues in adopting open access. Schmitt noted that he wouldn’t expect young researchers unprotected by tenure to sacrifice their careers by trying to insist on a new system. Jen Green, Dartmouth Digital Scholarship Librarian, also pointed out that open access publishing can come with high fees. While open access may break down barriers for those accessing research, for those trying to publish research the fees to publish open access may act as another barrier. While Dartmouth has funds to help Dartmouth authors publish open access, authors without a university or a student who graduates before their work is published won’t have that resource.

In spite of barriers to publishing open access, Schmitt believes that the millennials may be the generation to push for it. Because they grew up in a world of streaming and easy access, millennials may be more likely to see a movement away from the traditional paywall system towards one of accessible and affordable work.




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