The unacceptable face of copyright, by Glyn Moody
January 13, 2011 | 9:18 am
By Paul Biba
Open access is about making copies of publicly-funded research available freely online. This stems from the belief that (a) having paid for it, the public has a right to see it and (b) a general view that access to knowledge should not be restricted to those that can pay for it (not least because it is precisely those that *cannot* pay who need it most).
Against that background, and of the growing success of open access in bringing knowledge to the developing countries, this is disgusting:
From 4 January Elsevier Journals withdrew access in Bangladesh to 1610 of its publications, including the Lancet stable of journals, which had been available through the World Health Organization’s Health Inter-Network for Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) programme. HINARI was set up in 2002 to enable not for profit institutions in developing countries to gain access online to more than 7000 biomedical and health titles either free or at very low cost.
Springer has withdrawn 588 of its journals from the programme in Bangladesh and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins 299 journals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society for Animal Science have withdrawn access to, respectively, two and three of their journals.
To add insult to injury, some of the articles published in those titles are by researchers who now cannot read them:
Tracey Koehlmoos, head of the health and family planning systems programme at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, said, “We are a little less than 300 scientists eking out world class research on a shoestring budget without the purchasing power capacity of a big university in the West. HINARI has been our lifeline. My colleagues publish in many of these journals, and now we won’t even have access to our own papers.”
Companies publishing academic journals typically enjoy a profit margin of 30%; providing them free to scientists in *non-profit organisations* in developing countries will have an infinitesimal effect on their bottom lines.
It’s sheer, unadulterated greed that seeks to squeeze some money out of those that have precious little of it, in effect stopping them spending it elsewhere where it is sorely needed. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that people will die as a knock-on consequence of that diversion of resources.
I do wonder how the well-paid fat-cats running these huge publishing conglomerates (disclosure: I once worked for part of Reed-Elsevier, so I have some experience of these things) look at themselves in the mirror after making decisions like this.
But at least their selfish and callous action does helpfully underline one of the big problems with copyright: the fact that it allows companies that didn’t even produce the research that they publish, and to which they very often add very little value themselves, to decide who gets to read what ought to be the common heritage of humanity. In other words, it’s an intellectual monopoly that is wielded with only profit maximisation in mind.