Should Knowledge be free?

The question of should anything be free is a tricky one for us economists, because we look at the world through incentives and non-existent free lunches. Putting a price on anything changes its nature. It converts from being an abstract concept to a commodified good. How high or low that price is, makes it either a cheap good or an expensive good. But if that price is too high, it becomes an inaccessible good. And inaccessible knowledge is useless knowledge. Curtailing the free flow of new found information can be incredibly dangerous.

We’ve all been met with that familiar screen saying “Access Denied” when trying to read a research paper. That one screen is part of a bigger problem. It is the biggest problem currently in academia and its persistence threatens to tear down the core principles on which scientific thinking stands. Why is this payment that is being asked such a big deal? After all there is no such thing as a free lunch, remember? Well, the issue arises when the charge the publishers ask for is so exorbitantly high for any individual to pay that it blocks scientific communication. 

Earlier, it was difficult to publish a paper on a manuscript, so authors would go to these publishing journals. The journals took care of the peer review process, selected the best articles, type-setted, printed and published those articles at some cost. Today the nature of these publishing companies has changed, partly because the world itself has changed. The process of peer reviewing, selecting and publishing has all been digitized. This digitisation has reduced actual involvement of the journals in publishing making them just a ridiculously expensive middle man. 

In Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s tale the Little Prince, the prince meets a businessman who accumulates stars with the sole purpose of being able to buy more stars. The little prince is perplexed. He owns only a flower, which he waters every day. Three volcanoes, which he cleans every week. “It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them,” he says, “but you are of no use to the stars that you own”.
— The start of the Letter of Solidarity to shadow libraries Libgen and Sci-hub

The prices of journal access have risen dramatically over the years. Access to published articles are given at exorbitant prices that sometimes even universities cannot afford to pay. This crisis has its own name— the “Serials Crisis”. The ever increasing prices of serials and scholarly journals are outpacing even the budgets of university libraries. 

One would imagine that the mighty invisible hand would drive down prices through fair competition, but this does not happen and the publishing companies sit in comfortable oligopoly. Fair competition doesn’t happen for the reason that each research article is unique to itself. It’s not a substitutable good. I cannot shift from Elsevier to Springer when Springer doesn’t have the article I need— Elsevier does. This allows the companies to set high prices and get away with it. What’s even more worrying is the sense of pride that is associated with publishing in exclusive publications. 

Illustration showing Elsevier as a wolf in sheep’s clothing: Read more about their “predatory transgressions on academia” here

It’s even become fancy to say “Oh I published in Nature” when publishing in a journal that makes your article inaccessible to many goes against perhaps the heroic conceit with which you wrote the article itself.  In research such brags don’t make sense— the fact that your paper is in a hard-to-reach, expensive journal should be a matter of shame as it goes against the ethos of research communication.

The graphs above show that as the share of output of papers in the present day top publishers increased, the output decreased for all other publishers. Read more in  the PLOS paper The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era

Inaccessibility to research articles is the most unscientific practice imaginable and a massive problem in academia. Think about it, governments around the world spend money to research. Researchers with their years of hard work push the boundaries of human knowledge and publish new findings only for that knowledge to end up in a private journal that is comically priced and inaccessible? Researching is also about collaborating. How are scientists expected to critique, argue or build on papers when we shut down communications and put a price on it? How many times have you turned away seeing that “Access Denied” page and moved on? Think about what you would have learned had you had access then and there to that article. Worst of all, paywalls in research even kill. It most directly affects the medical communities with low budget countries being at an unfair disadvantage. Paywalls also ensure that the monopoly of publishing stays with the western world.

The problem of paywall is why shadow libraries exist and why academia is increasingly calling for researchers to go open access. Open access journals are based on the principle of free and open access to research outputs. Already, many open access journals like PLOS (Public Library of Science) are gaining traction.

Logo of open access, designed by PLOS

This is not an essay against markets. It’s an essay against oligopoly that hinders the path to a free market where competitions keep the prices low. The glorious invisible hand has been defeated in the arena of scholarly publications. It is high time that regulations come in to ensure that the scientific process remains what it was meant to be— Democratic. 

—Keerthana Satheesh

FY Bsc

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