Chelsea Yuhang Wang / Staff Photographer

Director Jason Schmitt speaks in a Q&A after a screening of his documentary at Cornell last Thursday.

December 2, 2018

Documentary Criticizes Closed-Access Academic Journals as Too Expensive, Restrictive

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Microsoft, the world’s most valued company, has an operating profit margin of around 30 percent. Meanwhile, a documentary screened at Cornell cited that Elsevier — a major publishing company behind numerous closed-access journals — has more than that, with a near 40 percent profit margin.

Director Jason Schmitt objected to the ever-increasing financial barrier erected around quality research in his documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, screened at Cornell Cinema last Thursday. He joined several Cornell faculty in exploring potential solutions to the exorbitant costs needed to access research articles in a Q&A that followed the screening.

The academic publishing industry presents a tension between the exploration of knowledge and generation of revenue, according to the documentary. Companies such as Elsevier boast “a 35 to 40 percent profit margin,” which is higher than some of the most valuable technology companies in the world, said Karla Cosgriff, director of Free The Science at The Electrochemical Society in an interview during the documentary.

While the publication companies benefit from limiting access to the research articles, the film argues that the academics that produce the research do not get appropriately compensated for their work, further driving up the companies’ profit margins.

“Publishing is so profitable because the workers don’t get paid,” said Emeritus Prof. John Adler, neurosurgery, Stanford University, in the documentary. “Profit margins in the publishing industry are second to none.”

Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, explained in the documentary that journal prices grow at a rate far higher than library budgets.

Multiple professors and librarians in the documentary also agreed that closed access often runs contrary to the mission of research. Though taxpayer money is in part used to fund academic research, the general public does not have access to this body of information, even when a paper was published 30 or 40 years ago.

The documentary argued that the two groups most affected by the business are budding researchers and concerned families. Ph.D. candidates are often limited in their study of a field by the research they are able to find and access. Similarly, families interested in researching a specific topic are restricted by the paywalls they face: most are not able to spend close to a $100 for an article that may not even be helpful to their needs, according to the documentary.

After the screening, a panel of five members entered the stage for a brief Q&A session. The members consisted of Jason Schmitt, director of Paywall, Gerald Beasley, university librarian, Prof. Jeremy Braddock, English, Prof. Paul Fleming, comparative literature and German studies, and Prof. Max Zhang, mechanical and aerospace engineering. Braddock, Fleming and Zhang are co-chairs of the Cornell University Faculty Library Board.

All panel members attested to the benefits of an open-access journal — publications where readers can access all the articles without paying — arguing that these sorts of journals can still be academically rigorous as long as they are subjected to peer-review.

“There’s nothing that prevents an open-access journal from being peer reviewed,” Fleming said. “My last two essays were in peer-review open-access journals, and disciplines should be able to enforce the quality of those journals.”

To remedy the lack of open-access publications, Braddock said that Cornell Library is currently working to build an open access platform called Open Journal System.

“We’re working very hard on that, and anybody who wants to bring a journal to OJS will have a very privileged way of making that content available and free to the end user,” Braddock told the audience members.

Wrapping up the Q&A session, Schmitt, the movie’s director, commended California for passing a bill that requires all public-funded research to be made available to the public in no more than a year.

“It’s a start,” Schmitt concluded. “California being the first state in the United States to do that, in my mind, it would make sense that New York should probably be the second state to perhaps do that.”