Tag Archives: Radiolab

The Irony of Open Access

14 Apr

In her song, “Everything is Free,” the singer-songwriter Gillian Welch sings:

Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn’t pay

She wrote the song in the days of Napster, when she felt her livelihood threatened by the unlawful sharing of artists’ work via the service. Napster, of course, faced legal challenges and eventually shut down as part of a settlement. But the horse was out of the barn, so to speak, and today Spotify and Apple Music (disclosure: I subscribe to the latter) continue to pay artists less-than-pennies on the dollar so that we can enjoy their talents.

I thought of this song as I was listening to the latest episode of the podcast, Radiolab, called The Library of Alexandra. The episode focuses on the shadow website, SciHub, and its creator, Alexandra Elbakyan. I’m not going to use this time and space to cover the details of SciHub (you can listen to the podcast), but for those who are unfamiliar, it’s a file sharing site, like Napster, but the files it shares are published journal articles. Also like Napster, it’s illegal.

Elbakyan, as well as SciHub’s champions, claim that the site provides an essential service. The scholarly publishing enterprise is broken. It charges obscene amounts of money to access articles, either via subscriptions (thank your library) or through individual payments for individual articles. Researchers – or rather researchers’ libraries/institutions – end up paying to access the work that they created themselves. The availability of research is also enormously skewed towards those with money, creating significant inequity in research across the globe (yet one more example).

You get no argument from me on these points. A handful of large publishing houses overwhelmingly control the vast majority of academic journals. For years they have had the upper hand, increasing subscription prices at a pace that broke library budgets, resulting in cuts to all kinds of resources and services. Yes, it’s a broken system. But as I listened to Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser, the co-hosts of the show, as well as Eli Cohen, the reporter for this episode, giggle and gush and breathlessly sing the praises of SciHub and Elbakyan, I cringed. I honestly kept thinking that a punchline had to be coming. Surely they were joking.

How could respected journalists condone this behavior? How could Lulu Miller (LULU MILLER?!), who gave one of THE best keynote lectures I have ever heard when she spoke at the annual meeting of the Special Libraries Association several years ago, be guffawing over a website and a practice that seriously damages libraries and librarians? They all laughed when Elbakyan said, “We will break copyright.” Hah, hah. So funny. I about blew a gasket when Cohen declared that he discovered SciHub while trying to learn how to use the library in college. It was just so much easier. Laziness and theft. Like Pandora’s Box opened up. What the… ?!?!

And so I took to Twitter and I shared some comments. I wondered how journalists would feel if someone busted through the paywalls of the world’s newspapers. I wondered if they’d just give their work away for free. I wondered if they worked for free. Nasser tweeted back:

Well, that’s true. They are a public radio show. Kind of like a public library. Everything is free.

What a ridiculously shallow reply. Nothing is free. Public radio, like public libraries, depends upon taxpayers, subscribers, donors, foundations, so many generous sources, in order to stay afloat. NPR recently experienced its largest layoff in its history due to a lack of advertisers and drops in other financial support. So hey! Stuff costs money. And when people righteously steal, pretending to be some kind of Robin Hood, other people suffer.

Thankfully, at the very end of the episode, the story FINALLY got to modern day (SciHub was started 12 years ago) when it discussed open access and the recent moves by the Biden administration towards immediate open access of all government-sponsored work (the Nelson Memo), beginning in 2025. Since 2008 (longer than SciHub), federal law has required that all research funded by the National Institutes of Health be made publicly available within 12 months of publication. The Nelson Memo is the next step in this progress towards an arena of open science. (And I beg to differ with the conclusions of the Radiolab folks, i.e., we don’t owe all thanks to Alexandra for pushing the world to open science. I think there are a good many others who have worked in legal ways over these years to see this come to fruition. And oh yeah… we had a global pandemic that forced paywalls to come down for the sake of developing a vaccine.)

On Wednesday, I attended a truly enlightening panel discussion hosted by the Society of Scholarly Publishing entitled, The Nelson Memo…Now What?. (Sorry folks, you can’t watch for free.) The panel featured a university librarian (Yale) and three individuals representing three different levels of publisher – large (Springer Nature), decent sized society publisher (American Physiological Society), and a small, niche, clinical publisher (American Society of Clinical Oncology). It was fascinating to hear the different perspectives, the genuine questions and fears, doubts for the future, the positives and negatives. In the end, there were no answers because there are no answers. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that scholarly publishing is facing a foundational shift in how they operate. And so are academic libraries.

And as I listened and took notes, all I kept thinking was, “How ironic.” For years this is what we’ve wanted, what we’ve worked for. Research should be available to everyone to read and build upon. Data should be available to reuse and expand. This is open science. It’s all great.

But again, NOTHING is free. Who is going to pick up the tab? It remains to be seen.

(Aside: I also saw this week that the New York City restaurant, Serendipity3, is bringing back its $214 grilled cheese sandwich, and that the misogynistic creep of a human being, Daniel Snyder, who is under federal investigation for his horrid reign over the Washington Commanders football team now has an offer from a group to buy the team for $6 billion dollars. He paid less than a billion for it. So somebody has the money to foot the bill.)

Public radio is not free. Public libraries do not operate without costs. Academic libraries provide so much to their faculty, students, and staff that quite frankly ought to be appreciated, not usurped or stolen. SciHub may be free, but it comes with a cost to those of us who seek to change the law, not break it.

I like Radiolab. Just not today. And I abhor obscene wealth. Every day.