Academics and researchers are not happy with the recent partnership that seems to have emerged between academic paywall site, Elsevier and free online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Elsevier is known for hoarding research papers and journals, essentially holding it ransom for a steep cost. I highlighted the pitfalls and efforts to tear down the academic paywall that’s not too different from the actions of Immortan Joe from Mad Max before. In that article from June, Elsevier had just launched a lawsuit against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis (LibGen). These two databases are working hard to develop and maintain a collection of information that would otherwise only be available by paying your way through the academic paywall.
Links That Lead to Paywall Sites: WikiGate
A new strategy seems to have come about in an effort being called WikiGate. The program was initiated by Elsevier after the academic paywall giant gave top Wikipedia editors 45 free ScienceDirect accounts in order to provide links in Wikipedia articles. The thing is, when normal users like you and I attempt to click those links it prompts us to pay upwards of $15 (£10) in order to access the information. I must agree with Peter Murray-Rust an academic in Molecular Informatics at the University of Cambridge when he told ArsTechnica in an email that this effort equates to
…crumbs from the rich man’s table. It encourages a priesthood. Only the best editors can have this. It’s patronising, ineffectual.
The academic paywall and efforts like WikiGate go against open access advocates like myself who believe that information is for everyone. And up until this point most advocates would have agreed that Wikipedia is on our side. However, this allegiance with the biggest builders of the ivory tower known as the academic paywall puts that reputation at risk.
Many open access advocates hope that by avoiding things like WikiGate we can put pressure on the academic paywall and promote more open access.
Why Fight WikiGate and the Paywall?
There is little argument that a monopoly is one of the worst things that can happen in a free market. A monopoly implies that all competition has been beaten. After it’s obtained it becomes a concrete barrier, preventing innovation and competition to grow. Truly one of the most detrimental things that can happen in this age- the information age- is for a monopoly to be gained on information. In all actuality, given the internet it is next to impossible to completely stymie competition but Elsevier is giving it their best shot.
It’s important to note that Elsevier is highlighted here because 1) it owns ScienceDirect and 2) it reaches a profit margin of nearly 40% where the average profit of margin in the industry is closer to half of that. Elsevier prospers because researchers continue to give their papers to them (uncompensated for their efforts), and universities continue to pay the ever-increasing costs.
When companies like this, further promoted through efforts like WikiGate, withhold high quality research and journals for money it creates a caste system of information. Already less-fortunate universities and entire third world countries are forced to do without access to this invaluable information.
However, even top notch universities are feeling the squeeze. In 2012 Harvard had to cut back on their number of subscriptions. In their public letter that made the announcement they cited a 145% increase in costs to maintain academic paywall subscriptions over just the previous 6 years.
If one of the most prestigious and richest schools in the Western world cannot keep up with the cost of quality information then that does not bode well for the rest of us. The rising cost of knowledge is bound to only create a deeper divide in income and knowledge inequality. Schools that are not heavily funded will increasingly be less effective in giving a high qaulity education.
If this trend is allowed to continue it will further consolidate the best information- and thus education- in only a few schools. The best professors will seek out schools with access to the best and most expensive subscriptions: driving them away from many colleges who can afford fewer and fewer subscriptions. The cost for the best universities that are already out of reach for the majority of world will continue to rise. Meanwhile, the cost of education- even at lower tier colleges- will continue to skyrocket as well as they attempt to compete.
The only way to prevent this is by supporting open access now. Websites like Wikipedia, Sci-Hub, and Library Genesis must prosper in order to ensure free and quality information in this age named after it. The worst thing that we as humans can create is an aristocracy of knowledge that favors the few instead of the masses. In reality ideas don’t belong to anyone.
These reasons are why the effort by Elsevier known as WikiGate is simply a bad idea. Promoting this notion of paying for science is a truly detrimental one to society. It can only go one way from here.
There is no logic to withholding knowledge for ransom. In this age, the information age, it is more readily accessible and cheaper to access an abundance of information than ever before. Instead of increasing costs we should focus on programs like Project Loon, Facebook’s Aquilla, and Outernet’s Lighthouse project that aim to increase access to information instead of funnel it into the hands of the well-off.
feature image courtesy of Neil Jacobs
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