We risk losing access to the world’s academic knowledge, and copyright makes things worse

The shift from analogue to digital has had a massive impact on most aspects of life. One area where that shift has the potential for huge benefits is in the world of academic publishing. Academic papers are costly to publish and distribute on paper, but in a digital format they can be shared globally for almost no cost. That’s one of the driving forces behind the open access movement. But as Walled Culture has reported, resistance from the traditional publishing world has slowed the shift to open access, and undercut the benefits that could flow from it.

That in itself is bad news, but new research from Martin Paul Eve (available as open access) shows that the way the shift to digital has been managed by publishers brings with it a new problem. For all their flaws, analogue publications have the great virtue that they are durable: once a library has a copy, it is likely to be available for decades, if not centuries. Digital scholarly articles come with no such guarantee. The Internet is constantly in flux, with many publishers and sites closing down each year, often without notice. That’s a problem when sites holding archival copies of scholarly articles vanish, making it harder, perhaps impossible, to access important papers. Eve explored whether publishers were placing copies of the articles they published in key archives. Ideally, digital papers would be available in multiple archives to ensure resilience, but the reality is that very few publishers did this. Ars Technica has a good summary of Eve’s results:

When Eve broke down the results by publisher, less than 1 percent of the 204 publishers had put the majority of their content into multiple archives. (The cutoff was 75 percent of their content in three or more archives.) Fewer than 10 percent had put more than half their content in at least two archives. And a full third seemed to be doing no organized archiving at all.

At the individual publication level, under 60 percent were present in at least one archive, and over a quarter didn’t appear to be in any of the archives at all. (Another 14 percent were published too recently to have been archived or had incomplete records.)

This very patchy coverage is concerning, for reasons outlined by Ars Technica:

The risk here is that, ultimately, we may lose access to some academic research. As Eve phrases it, knowledge gets expanded because we’re able to build upon a foundation of facts that we can trace back through a chain of references. If we start losing those links, then the foundation gets shakier. Archiving comes with its own set of challenges: It costs money, it has to be organized, consistent means of accessing the archived material need to be established, and so on.

Given the importance of ensuring the long-term availability of academic research the manifest failure of most publishers to guarantee that by putting articles in multiple archives is troubling. What makes things worse is that there is an easy way to improve the resilience of the academic research system. If all papers could be shared freely, there could be many new archives located around the world holding the contents of all academic journals. One or two such archives already exist, for example the well-established Sci-Hub, and the more recent Anna’s Archive, which currently claims to hold around 100,000,000 papers.

Despite the evident value to the academic world and society in general of such multiple, independent backups, traditional publishing houses are pursuing them in the courts, in an attempt to shut them down. It seems that preserving their intellectual monopoly is more important to publishers than preserving the world’s accumulated academic knowledge. It’s a further sign of copyright’s twisted values that those archives offering solutions to the failure of publishers to fulfil their obligations to learning are regarded not as public benefactors, but as public enemies.

Featured image by H. Melville after T. H. Shepherd.

Follow me @glynmoody on Mastodon and on Bluesky.

Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner