Open access and gated publishing have been discussed at length by researchers, publishers, and the media. Still, the debate got more intense when Elsevier sent takedown notices to Academia.edu. Yesterday, it got even more intense when it became public that the University of Calgary is also confronted with takedown notices from Elsevier. Elsevier responded to the critiques, but it is unlikely that this will take the heat out of the debate.
To be clear, I am strongly sympathetic with the idea of open access publishing. Like every researcher, I have been unable to access a publication more than once because it was paywalled and my library did not have access. Not to speak of the problems that non-scientists have with accessing publications or scientists from developing countries. Nevertheless, I also think the criticism of Elsevier’s actions is out of balance. Whatever you think about the takedown action, Elsevier has the right to do this. Researchers signed a copyright agreement with Elsevier and it is simply enforcing the agreement. If at all, one should be furious about the agreements but not that they are enforced once they have been signed. Furthermore, Elsevier is a company. The stakeholders of the company are interested in the company furthering their economic interest, i.e., making profits (Elsevier is making large profits, but this is not the point here because any company is allowed to insist on adherence to the law and continue making profits). In fact, Elsevier might be sued by stakeholders if it does not submit takedown notices because Elsevier fails to act in the interest of the stakeholders.
Stakeholders, companies, profits, all this might not be what one like to hear about in the scientific and publishing domain. And Elsevier’s actions look very much like what music and movie companies did a couple of years ago and might interpret this is a sign of weakness and demise. But the question is: where is the alternative? What the alternative is clear; for many people it is open access, but how does one get there on a broad scale? There are few publishers and lots of researchers facing a collective action problem. It is hard to see how laudable open access initiatives like Michael Eisen’s PLOS ONE could overcome this problem on a broad scale. My hunch is this must come from research organizations like the NSF, DFG, ERC etc., but action does not seem to be immediate. If an individual researcher wants to do something about this, a good starting point might be to check the copyright agreement of a publisher before sending your publication out. Not all publishers are equal in this respect. Even if the publishing market is an oligopoly, it would be unwise not to make use of this option at the moment. In the future, more satisfying options, including open access publishing, might be available to us.