In the realm of transnational copyright regulation several struggles are fought in parallel: Stylized and simplified, these are Free/Open Source Software movement vs. the proprietary software industry, the free culture movement around Creative Commons vs. the established music and film industry, and, of course, there is the industry-spanning battle against “pirates”, sometimes even literally and in court (see Wikipedia on “The Pirate Bay trial”). For a long time the publishing industry in general and the field of scientific publishing in particular seemed to be the only copyright field without open and severe conflict. While the former prevents both piracy and growth of the e-book market with strict digital rights management (see “The Kindle Controversy: No Right to be a Reader?”), in the latter Open Access initiatives for free and open availability of scientific publications – for example by the European Research Council (PDF-statement) or by the “Alliance of German Science Organisations” (English Version of its founding document), which includes the Max Planck Society and the German Research Foundation (DFG) – did not raise substantial public opposition.
At least for Germany, this description is yesterday’s news. A series of articles in German newspapers during the last weeks criticizing “expropriation” of authors by a sinister coalition of “Open Access” zealots and Google culminated in a petition called “Heidelberger Appell” (English Version). This petition was not only signed by numerous renowned researchers, publishers and authors but also inspired an immediate thunderstorm of reactions including a joint statement by the “Alliance of German Science Organisations” (for an extensive list of reactions in German see infobib.de; a concise overview of the genesis of the whole uproar is provided by Matthias Spielkamp at perlentaucher, quite readable in Google Englisch – now available in English at signandsight.com).
Without reproducing these extensive discussions here, I would like to mention just three reasons why I think the “Heidelberger Appell” misses the point:
- The initiator (Roland Reuß) and the majority of early subscribers of the petition stem from the humanities, a particularly large proportion from the field of literature studies. This is remarkable, as all quantitative assessments of Open Access usage show that it does not play any role in these disciplines (see for example DFG 2005). At the same time, researchers in disciplines where Open Access publishing actually is an issue are generally more sympathetic towards the approach. This leads to the educated guess that most of the supporters of the “Heidelberger Appell” lack any empirical contact with Open Access publishing, neither as a reader nor as an author or editor. This is probably the best explanation for the next two reasons.
- As opposed to the critique in the petition, Open Access is not against copyright. On the contrary, even Open Access initiatives that use very liberal Creative Commons licenses such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) still rely on copyright. They just use their copyright to guarantee continued free and open access to works of their authors. In fact, for researchers and research itself copyright does not really matter: Researchers do not earn their living by selling their scientific writings. The large majority even earns absolutely nothing by it. When they publish, they do so to gain reputation and to contribute to a commons of scientific knowledge. For reputation, in turn, researchers are required to publish their work in reputed journals or publishing houses, which in most of all cases force them to transfer all their copyrights, anyway. The only actors in research and science that profit from copyright are scientific publishers, and among them most of all the “Big 8” publishing houses with together more than 60 percent market share (see the British House of Commons report “Scientific Publishing: Free for all?”). And their profits are so huge that the Austrian philosophy of science professor Gerhard Fröhlich calls them as only comparable to the profits made in “the trade of arms and drugs” (German interview in the edited volume “Freie Netze. Freies Wissen.”). In fact, in most disciplines the problem is actually not too much but far too little Open Access, since so-called “top journals” exploit their powerful position by charging monopoly prices and hence restrict access for financially weaker institutions.
- The most surprising – and annoying – aspect of the current debate in Germany is the intermixture of Open Access and Google Books. These two issues are simply unrelated. Google is neither explicitly nor implicitly pursuing an Open Access agenda with its Google Books project. It does not provide its scanned books openly or for free.
As I see it, the main points of debate around scientific Open Access publishing should not be “whether” but rather “how” – as in the question of “how can a regulatory framework be developed that prevents Open Access publishing from becoming a mere shift from exorbitant journal prices to exorbitant fees in author-pays business models?” In this discussion I would be interested in.