Science in Society Archive

Who Owns Scientific Knowledge?

Professor Peter Saunders calls on all scientists to resist the privatisation of scientific knowledge by refusing to publish in journals belonging to publishers profiteering from closing off free access to scientific archives.

Patents and copyrights exist so that people can be rewarded for what they have invented or created. Recently, however, some corporations have been using them to gain ownership of things they didn’t invent. No one invented the so-called breast cancer gene BRCA1 and the company that holds the patent didn’t even do most of the work of discovering it; they only put the last piece into the jigsaw. No corporation invented the neem tree or Basmati rice. But that hasn’t stopped them from filing patents. Now some publishers, notably Elsevier, are trying to do the same with scientific knowledge. They are setting up electronic archives that will effectively make them the owners of large amounts of scientific knowledge.

As with patents on genes, the problem arises largely because the law has failed to keep up with new technology. The scientific literature is vast, and it can be very hard to find the information you need. Most scientists know all too well that you can discover only by chance and often too late something it would have been very useful to know when you began your work. Someone may even have published essentially the same result a few years ago in a journal that your library doesn’t take, and in an article whose title wouldn’t have caught your eye even if you had seen it. Scientific results are generally picked up quickly, or not at all. If no one has cited a paper within two or three years of publication, the work it contains is very likely to be lost.

The development of highly efficient search engines will change this by making it possible to trawl through thousands of articles in an electronic archive and pick out the few that might be relevant to your work. This will greatly extend the amount of research that any scientist will be able to draw on and so makes the ownership of electronic archives crucial. Some publishers are now working hard to ensure that this knowledge belongs not to the scientific community, not to the general public, but to them. This is knowledge that they haven’t even paid for.

It’s important to remember that academic journals are not like other publications. The most obvious difference, and one that surprises outsiders, is that the authors are not paid. Neither are the reviewers, even though it is peer review that gives the journals much of their authority. The editorial board and the editors, too, generally receive no payment for their work. The publisher gets all that for free, and most insist that the author signs over the copyright as well.

The reason this arrangement has survived is that the journals have been the chief means of letting other scientists know about your work and of establishing your scientific reputation. The editors and reviewers, almost all in paid employment, have regarded their work for the journal as a part of their contribution to science. As long as the publishers made only reasonable profits, this was acceptable as payment for a useful service to the scientific community, though in recent years some commercial publishers have been raising their prices at rates far in excess of inflation or special costs like the price of paper.

As for the copyright, that didn’t seem to matter too much. It doesn’t cover the ideas in the paper, only things like the typesetting, the diagrams and so on. The chief effect of copyright was that anyone who wanted to reproduce the material in another publication (as distinct from merely using the results of the research) had to obtain permission and possibly pay a suitable fee. In recent years, it has become more important because it limited photocopying. That largely affected only teaching; there was relatively little effect on research.

Things are now changing. If material can be put on an electronic archive, and if almost every scientist will want to refer to the archive while carrying out research, then the copyright becomes very valuable. The copyrights that authors signed over without giving the matter much thought may now mean that the very results of their research are effectively the property of whoever owns the archive. Anyone will still be able to use the results for free, but only those with access to the archive will know they exist.

There’s not much we can do about those papers for which the publishers already hold the copyright. They may not have paid for them, but the law says they own them. Scientists have just realised that their copyright is valuable, not because we expect to make money out of it ourselves, but because to assign it to a publisher may now mean that our fellow scientists will have to pay to use it.

The most vocal opponents to this privatisation of knowledge are a group who call themselves the Public Library for Science. They are demanding that all published papers should be placed on a free archive six months after they have appeared. They argue that this should not affect the sales of journals because people will still pay to see research as it appears, and they are asking scientists to sign a declaration that they will not publish in any journal that does not agree to this. So far almost 27000 scientists from 170 countries have signed. There is also a list of journals that have already agreed to make the papers they publish available after six months, and this includes the highly prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Setting up and maintaining an electronic archive is a considerable undertaking, and it is not clear what is the best way forward. Six months before access is free may be a long enough delay in some fields but not in others. It is not even obvious that there should be a single archive at all, whoever controls it. But at the very least, the Public Library of Science has drawn attention to the problem and well and truly thrown down the gauntlet: if what they are arguing is not practicable, then we have to find something better.

Over the past ten or twenty years there have been massive increases in the prices of many journals. Most university libraries have been forced to reduce the number of journals they take, which makes it harder for scientists to keep up with new work in their field. The publishers have thus increased their profits by providing not a better service to the scientific community but a worse one. We allowed that to happen by continuing to publish in overpriced journals. We must not repeat the mistake by allowing our work to disappear into overpriced archives. We must stop publishing in those journals.

(The Public Library of Science’s policy statement and open letter can be found on For contributions from all sides of the debate, see for example )

Article first published 01/11/01

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