How paywalls are poisoning public-interest research

Taxpayer funded research that could be improving the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders is being locked behind paywalls, thanks to a profit-focused approach to academic publishing, argues Mandy Henk of open access advocacy group Tohatoha NZ.

It was a heady time to be in libraries. In ye olden times, libraries subscribed to scholarly journals which were mostly published by learned societies with financial support from universities.

Then, the internet happened.

The transition to a digital system brought with it paywalls, soaring prices and consolidation. Scientific knowledge became a highly profitable commodity. In libraries, we called it the “serials crisis”.

The crisis was this: journals cost too much. Far too much. Prices were rising 10%, 20% year on year. Corporate consolidation, rising subscription prices, an inelastic market where purchasing decisions were completely insensitive to price.

And so the open access movement came together. Today, 51% of our New Zealand-based university research is made available to everyone – either through a university repository or by being published in a journal committed to using Creative Commons or other open licensing.

Which left a small group of highly profitable publishers in want of a business model. Enter the Performance Based Research Fund and international competition for university rankings.

When publishers with 40% profit margins start rebranding themselves as “information analytics” companies, it’s a good idea to take a close look at what they’re up to.

Let’s step back to 1955.

Eugene Garfield, chemist, soon-to-be-linguist and expert in computer automation, publishes a paper in Science proposing “a bibliographic system for science literature that can eliminate the uncritical citation of fraudulent, incomplete, or obsolete data by making it possible for the conscientious scholar to be aware of criticism of earlier papers.”

This was the first published description of what would become the Science Citation Index. You might know it as Web of Science, or perhaps you are more familiar with its competitor, Scopus. The Science Citation Index helped to create a whole new academic discipline, bibliometrics.

Built into our Performance Based Research Fund, the system that New Zealand uses to evaluate the work of university-based scientists and other scholars, bibliometrics, and their Silicon Valley dependent sister, altmetrics, are now big business.

Through mergers and acquisitions, academic publishers are commodifying and vertically integrating the entire process of knowledge production and repackaging it for sale – back to the universities themselves. And with this transition, they are gaining far more control and power than they ever had as mere publishers.

Much as in Silicon Valley, this model relies on data – gathering it, owning it, and selling it. It takes our obsession with metrics and commodifies it, turning our system of research evaluation and funding into a profit centre for academic publishers.

This system further entrenches precarity while contributing to the marginalisation of Māori and Pasifika scholars. It disincentivises New Zealand based research and punishes scholars who work in languages other than English.

It also creates a powerful stakeholder who will stand in the way of the kinds of serious reforms that Professor Wendy Larner, President of the Royal Society Te Apārangi and others are demanding. It’s inviting a 900lb gorilla into the room. Stuff’s gonna get wrecked, real quick.

Mediating our judgments about research quality through algorithms, software interfaces, and proprietary data isn’t going to give us better scholarship or better science. The path to that is much murkier, more complex, and messier – it isn’t something you can buy and it isn’t something you can find by crunching data or building an algorithm.

And anyone who claims otherwise probably has a database for sale.

There is still real work to do to improve New Zealanders’ access to science and research publications. 51% isn’t a number to brag about; we need a national level strategy to complete the process of opening our research literature. There’s a whole research programme that could keep the folks at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand’s only library school, busy for a decade.

But to finish this process well, we need to change how we’ve been going about it. We need to reimagine PBRF, end our dependence on metrics, proprietary and otherwise, and centre values of care – care for our researchers and scientists, care for research participants, and care for our students.

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There’s a real risk now that publishers are chasing a new model.  If we aren’t careful, we could end up with a system where research is open to read, but our system of evaluation has been enclosed. That’s not the kind of change we need.

Avoiding this is going to mean taking a cold hard look at how these companies are operating, what they are telling their investors, and how our systems are creating vulnerabilities for them to exploit for profit.

Open access is the future, but let’s not move fast and break things. Let’s move with care for our researchers, our students, and our communities.

More on the Tohatoha report Centring Our Values: Open Access for Aotearoa and its Open Access campaign is here.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.


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