Is it time to end copyright for scientific journals?

Is the public being cut off from important knowledge in order to maximize profits? And does it always have to be that way?

In a recent talk at CERN, Harvard law professor Larry Lessig argued that scientific information should be freely available to the public, without the restriction that scientific journals often put on their articles.

Lessig describes an incident that happened some time ago, when his child was ill, and he was looking up articles on the suspected illness to see what the possible consequences were. Because he was a Harvard professor, Lessig had access to journal articles that would have cost someone in a less exalted position over four hundred dollars. However, as he was searching a free article, he came to a page which contained a chart which would tell a medical layman when he or she should really be worrying for their child - only to find it withheld, and only available in the print version. The child was fine, but the incident prompted further investigation. Lessig found that from 1986 to 2004, inflation stayed comfortingly under one hundred percent. The price of scientific journals went up around 250 percent.

That's not happy news, but it's also not in itself something that should necessarily be changed. Sky-rocketing prices aren't illegal. Wanting something, even urgently, and not getting it doesn't mean there has to be a sea change. However, Lessig believes that this is a misuse of copyright, and that is something that should change.

Traditionally, Lessig states in his lecture, copyright was something used to protect creators, not publishers. Creators needed to be financially compensated for their work, or their work would disappaear and society would suffer greatly. Although publishers certainly benefitted from copyright law, their financial benefit was a side-effect of the law's protection of creators.

The authors of scientific papers don't do it for the money - at least not directly. They don't publish on the understanding that they should be compensated for every paper sold. In fact, most scientists would prefer that their papers were as widely-read as possible. Copyright of scientific papers is used, in practice, to compensate the publisher.

This changes the dynamic of the debate. If copyright is meant to give rights to publishers, then the public is out of luck. Wanting something of someone else's really badly is not a legal argument that it should be given to you. However, if copyright is meant to benefit creators, and the publishers are just tag-alongs, then it's not a matter of rights versus wants. It's a matter of the publisher's desire to make money off scientific papers versus the public's desire to have access to scientific papers - and which one is more important.

Lessig was quick to point out that a large proportion of publishers do make their articles available to the public for free (and the Public Library of Science journals were created expressly to do this). But those who don't effectively cut off scientific knowledge from most of the population. Now, there's no doubt that work is put into the publication itself, and the editing process, but is there a way to make information more widely and fairly available?

Spotted on Motherboard.tv.

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