One of the few powers granted to Congress in the U.S. Constitution that comes with a justification in the text is the patents and copyright clause, which reads “[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
Perhaps the clearest violation of the telos of this clause is the granting of copyright protection to academic journals. Academics generally aren’t paid for specific journal articles they write (often subsidized by taxpayer money), because as employees of a university there is an expectation to “publish or perish”– on top of an independent desire to have their work featured in a prestigious journal.
Exclusivity would, in fact, weaken this incentive if the work is made more difficult to access, as the academic publisher and rent-seeker extraordinaire Elsevier does.
After months of negotiations, the University of California system is cutting their ties with the infamous Elsevier. From Michael Hiltzik of Los Angeles Times:
Put simply, the university wants 100% of the papers written by its faculty and students to be made available to all readers, for free, permanently.
UC’s action is tantamount to a nuclear shot. UC claims to generate nearly 10% of all published research in the United States. The university also has been a significant partner of Elsevier, which has published about 18% of all UC output and collected more than 25% of the university’s $40-million overall subscription budget.
Though it would be a radical departure from the status quo, the UC system’s request is rather modest: works created by authors under their umbrella should be freely accessible to those in the UC system. Elsevier’s response?
Elsevier’s final offer would have layered publication fees on top of subscriptions, the UC negotiators say. The offer would have increased UC costs by about $30 million over the three-year term of the contract, they calculated — an 80% increase, assuming that all UC authors moved to open access publication.
In fairness, Elsevier’s representative “did not recognize that number,” though I would regard any claims from the company with healthy skepticism.
While it is unclear if this action by the UC system will induce Elsevier to change (it makes a $1 billion profit every year), this defection by one of the heaviest hitters in academic publishing could be a bellwether for other universities to do the same until Elsevier sets more reasonable terms for its subscribers and authors.