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David Wiley: The Parable of the Inventor and the Trucker

Here’s the first post from this month’s guest blogger, David Wiley.

Summer is a time to take a step back and review campus policies while fewer students are on campus. As you do, please consider this parable of the inventor and the trucker.

Once upon a time there was a brilliant inventor. Day and night she dreamed and schemed, until one sunny day she had a “Eureka!” moment. She sketched out the design of a breakthrough product, and worked and reworked it by showing it to friends and getting their feedback.

When she was satisfied that the design was ready to take to production, she began contacting venture-capital organizations and banks. It was a long, painful process, but finally she acquired the money she needed to put her ideas into motion.

Money in hand she began searching for employees – production specialists, designers, marketing experts, and others. Finding the right people for the enterprise proved more difficult than finding the money to start the enterprise, but at last she succeeded in hiring the right people.

They all set to work. It was alternately glorious and tedious, fulfilling and demoralizing. There were false starts and breakthroughs; there was tension and laughter; there were tears of frustration and tears of joy. They persevered through it all, and at length the day arrived when they had a product ready to ship.

Relieved and ecstatic, the inventor began contacting shipping companies. But she could not believe what she heard. The truckers would deliver her goods, but only subject to the most unbelievable conditions:

The inventor had to sign all the intellectual-property rights to her product over to the truckers.
The truckers would keep all the profits from sales of the inventor’s product.
The shipping deal had to be both exclusive and perpetual, never subject to review or cancellation.

Every shipping company she contacted gave the same response. Dejected, but unwilling to see the fruits of all her labor go to waste, she eventually relented and signed a contract with one of the companies.

This parable is, of course, a story about a researcher and her interactions with academic-journal publishers. While the scenario is all too familiar to us as academics, the parable hopefully sheds some light on the way academic publishing works. As a faculty member, I am expected to:

Come up with original ideas for useful research.
Find grants or other financing with which to conduct the research.
Identify and hire graduate students and other professionals to help conduct the research.
Participate in actually conducting the research.
Determine what the results of the research mean for my field and for society.
Write up the results of the research in a clear and communicative manner.
Surrender all my rights to the written results of my research to a publisher who will sell my work and make a huge profit by so doing.

And when I say a “huge profit,” let me provide a concrete example. Reed Elsevier reported profits over $800-million from its Elsevier publishing division in 2008. Not over $800-million in total revenue – over $800-million in profit.

How does a company make such an incredible amount of money? By persuading you and I to do their work as volunteers. We not only write the articles they publish, but we also volunteer our time to review the papers they publish. And then, inexplicably, our universities pay publishers exorbitant subscription fees so that we can regain access to the results of our own research, writing, and peer-review efforts.

Unfortunately, this lunacy is the water in which all academic fish swim, making it sometimes difficult to recognize. There was a time in the past when publishers held a monopoly on distribution and academics had no method of disseminating their work that did not involve giving away their rights and interest in their own work. The Internet has changed the status quo, however, and each of us now has equal access to a means of distribution exponentially more powerful and affordable than the paper-based distribution of yesteryear.

Since we faculty already write and review the articles, and we have direct access to the most efficient distribution system in the history of humanity, why are we still handing over billions of dollars of increasingly scarce resources to journal publishers? You will find that the answers to this question have nothing to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge or the economics of those activities.

I believe that colleges should take some time this summer to consider how they might shake up the old publishing system and encourage free open access to their professors’ research articles. Institutions like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and most recently the University of Kansas have made great strides in improving the dissemination of their faculty’s research output while simultaneously helping faculty members reclaim their interests in their own work by adopting “open access” policies. Perhaps it’s time for your university to consider an open-access policy, too. —David Wiley

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