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  2. January 16, 2013 6:31 pm
  3. Aaron Swartz’s illusion over
  4. research
  5. By John Gapper
  6. Deleting private companies from the equation might allow savings
  7. but could reduce efficiency
  8. he death of the internet activist Aaron Swartz at the age of 26 has rightly evoked tributes
  9. to his creativity and selflessness. Swartz, who faced jail for illegally downloading millions of
  10. academic papers from an electronic library, committed suicide last week.
  11. Five years ago, Swartz signed a “guerrilla open access manifesto” in which he complained of
  12. “the world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage” being “digitised and locked up by a handful
  13. of private corporations” such as Reed Elsevier. He advised computer hackers to “take
  14. information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world”.
  15. In 2010, he disguised his identity and exploited the electronic
  16. network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to
  17. download most of the database of Jstor, a non-profit group that digitises academic journals and
  18. articles. He did not share or sell the material – he later handed it back – but prosecutors took
  19. the manifesto seriously and charged him with fraud.
  20. Mr Swartz worked on projects from the news aggregator Reddit to the Creative Commons open
  21. copyright licence, and was widely liked and admired. But, in his analysis of academic research
  22. and publishing, he suffered from an illusion.
  23. Free access to academic research – the system Mr Swartz advocated – could bring public
  24. benefits. It would enable anyone to read, analyse and build upon privately and publicly funded
  25. research. However, someone would still need to pay for it and the costs to universities such as
  26. MIT and Oxford would rise, not fall.
  27. Critics of the current system, under which research libraries pay up to $50,000 annually to use
  28. online databases, tend to blame profiteering by companies such as Reed Elsevier and Springer
  29. for this cost. George Monbiot, the activist and Guardian writer, describes it as “pure rentier
  30. capitalism”, arguing that people should “throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the
  31. research that belongs to us”.
  32. Allied to this is the belief that publishing costs have fallen heavily in the shift from print to
  33. digital. Elsevier, the scientific publishing arm of Reed Elsevier, made profits of £352m on
  34. revenue of £978m in the first half of 2012 – an operating margin of 36 per cent. Remove the
  35. capitalists and distribute research through public utilities, and surely swaths of cost would
  36. disappear?
  37. Well, perhaps. Elsevier could certainly do with a bit more competition. Its fee structure is
  38. opaque and it publishes journals in which academics vie to be published. It has what Warren
  39. Buffett calls a moat – it is a 130-year-old business with 20 per cent of the market that is hard
  40. to attack.
  41. It did not, however, steal this advantage. It acquired it from the 1960s and 1970s onwards as
  42. research universities saved money by outsourcing their costly and subscale publishing presses.
  43. Elsevier employs 7,000 editors, manages a network of some 500,000 peer reviewers (whom it
  44. does not pay), publishes 300,000 new articles a year and runs a 100-terabyte database.
  45. Printing is only a small part of the cost of academic publishing. The bulk lies in the labourintensive business of editing and reviewing submissions (rejecting two-thirds of them) and
  46. managing data. These costs are similar for open access publishers such as the Public Library of
  47. Science (Plos) in San Francisco, a competitor to Elsevier.
  48. An independent study by the Research Information Network in the UK found that the shift
  49. from print to digital may save £1bn globally – worth having but only 12 per cent of total costs.
  50. Removing private companies from the equation might allow further savings, but it might
  51. equally reduce efficiency.
  52. In any case, there will still be a hefty bill. About 90 per cent of the industry operates on
  53. subscription – the model Swartz so hated. The other 10 per cent is now open access, under
  54. which researchers (or research funders) have to pay journals between $1,000 and $5,000 an
  55. article to cover publishing costs. Anyone can then read it free.
  56. Open access is appealing and is supported both by research funds, such as the US National
  57. Institutes of Health and the UK Wellcome Trust, and by the UK government. The trust believes
  58. it makes no sense to invest £700m each year on research without paying an extra £10m to
  59. make it widely available.
  60. Research is largely read by other academics at the moment, most of whom have access through
  61. libraries. But there could be big benefits to broadening reach – Plos One, the science journal, is a
  62. trove of fascinating material.
  63. That said, open access mostly transfers the bill. The Research Information Network estimated
  64. that, if the market moves to 90 per cent open access, total costs would fall by £560m but
  65. universities would pay more. The UK would save £128m in library subscriptions but contribute
  66. £213m in fees because its universities publish a lot of research.
  67. Open access also has its pitfalls. In the 1970s the credit rating industry turned from investors
  68. subscribing to ratings to bond issuers paying. That established open access but also gave
  69. agencies a motive to please issuers with good ratings, culminating in the triple A rating of flimsy
  70. mortgage-backed securities.
  71. Open access journals have a similar incentive to widen access and dilute quality. It is worth
  72. noting that Plos One publishes 24,000 pieces of research every year – it accepts any
  73. submission that meets the hurdle of “valid science” – while the most prestigious journals
  74. (including other Plos titles) publish 200.
  75. If Swartz’s sad death shifts the balance further toward open access, that will be a worthy
  76. legacy. But someone will always pay.
  77. john.gapper@ft.com
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