Why is Open Access floundering? Libraries have not let piracy do its job.

(Inflammatory first paragraph)

Libraries are their own worst enemies: they continue to support profiteers while hiding the true cost of publishing from their own users.

(Settling into the argument – first some background)

We all know the story, we pay the academics to write the papers they give for free to the publishers who charge us to read them.  That’s not wrong, per se, but for the huge profits the publishers make.

Elsevier’s annual adjusted profit 2016 NZD$3,903,247,320
(RELX Group 2016)
Marsden Fund 2016/17 NZD $57,800,00
(Royal Society of New Zealand n.d.)

The profit from the largest academic publisher would fund all of New Zealand’s research 675 times over.  In my view, that profit is government money that is given as a subsidy straight into shareholder’s pockets.  I would prefer that money went into research, and that the optimal business model for publishing research is a non-profit one.  We can argue about that some other time, but I hold that the superprofits made by academic publishers are profiteering.

 Profiteering:  The action or fact of making an excessive or unfair profit, esp. by the sale of necessary goods at extortionate prices. (OED Online n.d.)

So, what is to be done?

Lets look at other business.  Music and book publishing has changed vastly since the internet has given cheap reproduction and near ubiquitous access to digital material.  It didn’t want to, but had to.  I don’t think that it had to is in question, but why did it?  What were the drivers?  My simplistic argument is Piracy. If its cheaper and more convenient to pirate something, then people will, and official revenue streams will wither.  As a result one whole reason for creating stuff (i.e. being rewarded for it) disappears, and we are all the poorer.  Copyright exists as a way to make sure people do new stuff – so the creators get paid.  Until the gift economy can reliably put dinner on the table, copyright remains a good idea to protect innovation.  (We can argue about what copyright means, and how the present implementation is broken later.)

(The good bit)

Libraries are good corporate citizens.  They obey the rules until they don’t, and then it’s with very clear and sophisticated reasons.


Source Unknown. Would love to know.

Libraries have very successfully hidden the questionable practices of publishers by acquiescing to their demands.  Tell an academic how much their institution pays for digital access to stuff they wrote and gave away for free and I promise you, they’ll blanch.  then say, you could have that money back for research, if you give me 10% to keep the publishing system going with non-profit publishers, and they’ll sign.  (There’s always a few nay sayers, but being a stirrer is part of the job description, and I love them for it).

But I digress.

A recent article in The Idealis suggested that libraries should employ interns to assess what journals they should drop when the material is available as Open Access (Gonzales 2017).  I say we should include what material is also available including those through piracy. Piracy is not fair, not legal and not ethical.  Neither is profiteering, but we seem to be happy to support that.  Just as importantly: neither profiteering nor piracy is sustainable.

(the modest proposal)

See how many of your users already use pirate sites to gather their research material – there are institutional logs for that, and you don’t have to identify anyone while you’re doing it.  See that it is already having a big effect on access to information.  Think about cutting down your subscriptions, and sending that money to OA initiatives that support the research done at your institution.  Encourage overlay journals as an alternative to peer-review.  (There isn’t too much research, there are too many papers).  Break up the big deals, so that the small journals need to flip to OA or die.  Keep looking at the amount of piracy done by your institution, and use it as an index of how effective the change of model is, because when legitimate access becomes convenient, piracy will die.


Gonzales, L. (2017, April 25). The Forbidden Forecast: Thinking About Open Access and Library Subscriptions. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from https://theidealis.org/the-forbidden-forecast-thinking-about-open-access-and-library-subscriptions/

profiteering, n. (n.d.). OED Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/152105

Royal Society of New Zealand | Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2017, from http://www.mbie.govt.nz/info-services/science-innovation/research-organisations/key-partners/royal-society-of-new-zealand/?searchterm=marsden%2A
RELX Group. (2016). RELX Group Annual reports and financial statements 2016. Retrieved from http://www.relx.com/investorcentre/reports%202007/Documents/2016/relxgroup_ar_2016.pdf




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