The White House recently released a memo entitled Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research. According to the memo, “the Administration is committed to ensuring that…the direct results of federally funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community.” To clarify “direct results,” the memo continues: “Such results include peer-reviewed publications and digital data.” Along with the recent Congressional bill the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), the country is possibly one step closer to open access scholarship.
Undoubtedly, some scientific journal publishers are opposed to both the White House memo and the FASTR Act and will possibly use their lobbying influence to try to get around both. It might spawn a sequel we can call Research Works Act 2: Making Sure the Public Pays, and Pays Again. The arguments will be familiar. We do make research accessible, they’ll say. Just look at all the universities that have subscriptions to our journals! And we add a lot of value, because it’s not like scholars can just publish their work free on the Internet (and get tenure)! They’ll argue that the current mode of scholarly publishing is good for everyone. They might even argue that making their commercial publications open access is a form of “piracy,” and even if they don’t make the argument, they probably believe it.
Perhaps the most well-known critic of so-called piracy is the music industry, specifically its organizational muscle the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It has been yelling “piracy!” for years, with little sympathy from the general public. It gets more sympathy when it talks about how damaging such piracy is for the musicians, because people want their favorite musicians to succeed, whereas they don’t care a whit for the slick backroom executive in the shiny suit who can’t play a lick of music but who is great at making deals.
It turns out that the music publishing industry and the scholarly publishing industry are similar. Let’s take a look at how the music industry works. Read this article in The Root on what musicians really make, along with this Salon article by Courtney Love about who the real pirates of the music industry are. The Root concludes that “for every $1,000 in music sold, the average musician makes $23.40.” A band gets a contract entitling them to, for example, 13 percent of sales, but all the money for recording, marketing, and distribution comes out of that 13 percent, while the record label might keep 63 percent. Until the entire costs of production and distribution are recouped from that 13 percent, the musicians get nothing and might even end up in debt to the label. Thus, even a popular artist like Lyle Lovett could have sold five million albums but “never made a dime” from the sales. Music sales are at best an advertisement for live shows, where the musician might make some money.
The arrangement is not unlike that of the truck system, where employees are paid in scrip that can only be exchanged at the company store. Both systems can end up with the workers working hard and creating wealth while still remaining in debt to the employer. It’s a great deal for the employer. For the employee, it’s slavery to the system. When analyzed without the industry bias, it’s pretty easy to see what an exploitative system it really is and why many musicians try to find ways around it.
When we turn to the current organization of scholarly publishing, especially in the sciences, we can see a similar pattern to the music industry. The researchers are like the musicians. They produce their work and send it off to a commercial publisher that then packages it and sells it at a price the market can bear—or maybe a little more—and that then complains when people expect free public access even to the results of research that the public funded. Corporate publishers make a tidy profit, while the researchers see nothing. Publishing a lot and being cited are at best advertising that might lead to a university position that is analogous to the live performance.
The general public pays for music to make the recording industry rich while the musician struggles. The general public also pays for a lot of the time and effort behind scholarly publication through taxes to support education and scientific research. Either way, the public pays, the corporations get rich, and the workers who generate the actual content—the scholarly publications and the musical recordings—do all the hard work for little profit.
This article reports on various ways musicians have tried to bypass the music labels to set up alternative routes to musical publishing in which the public gets the music and the musicians benefit. Sometimes just putting music up online for free is enough incentive to get the public to pay some money or come to shows. It’s all about creative ways to bypass commercial publishers that have exploited musicians for profit while getting the results of their work to an appreciative public. We also have ways to bypass commercial publishers that exploit scholars, universities, and libraries for profit. It’s called the open access movement, and it just made a little bit of progress.