Why For-Profit Academic Publishers Are Laughing All the Way to the Bank

If you’re not an academic or scientist, then you probably have no idea how off kilter research scholarship has become. 

For the past two years, I’ve focused on this misalignment, traveling around the world to document this issue, and just released my documentary, “Paywall: The Business of Scholarship,” this month. It focuses on why the world needs open access to research and science, questions the rationale behind the $25.2 billion a year that flows into for-profit academic publishers, examines the 35-40% profit margin associated with the top academic publisher Elsevier and looks at how that profit margin is often greater than some of the most profitable tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google.

After traveling 45,000 miles and interviewing over 70 key leaders in all facets of academics and research, I can wholeheartedly say:  you don't want to have scholars negotiating business contracts for you. My crew and I uncovered that public funds, which come out of taxpayers’ pockets and are earmarked to fund important scientific research, are often locked behind paywalls (which require subscribers to pay for access). This makes this information inaccessible to the general public while, at the same time, generates an unfathomable revenue stream for for-profit publishing companies. As I learned about these issues, I was struck by the global energy and enthusiasm toward open access and the strong resistance to this movement by many of the world’s top publishers.

However, it shouldn’t take long for general society to see that the costliness of the current system is a major burden to the higher education market and contributes to the rising tuition fees at all universities, resulting in the closure of many institutions and—this is the big one—limiting innovation in science, research and progress.

From researchers within the Global South to used car salesmen in Richmond, Virginia, “Paywall” paints a clear picture that limited access to research helps no one and for-profit publishers need to change. One major highlight includes a rare interview with Sci-Hub creator Alexandra Elbakyan who has faced the wrath of these for-profit publishers head-on. Grabbing this interview was difficult because Elbakyan, who created the pirate database that currently houses more than 67 million research papers, is currently in-hiding in Russia because these for-profit publishers (specifically Elsevier) want her arrested for copyright infringement and intellectual property theft.

Staying true to the open access model: this film is free to stream and download personally and publically and maintains the most open CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons designation to ensure anyone regardless of their social, financial or political background will have access to view this film.

I never wanted this film to be geared toward the academic community. My audience is everyone else—people who may not be aware that this issue is happening, but who are affected anyway, especially when comes to innovation that could help them (or someone they know). And the message of the film seems to be reverberating all around the world. In fact, I had to figure out another way to make it readily available because my server crashed within hours of its global release due to massive traffic.

We currently have screenings scheduled at 250 universities and institutions around the globe this fall, including the United Nations, UC-Berkeley, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, Oxford University and Erasmus University. Earlier this month, it premiered in Washington, DC, and before a sold out audience at the MIT Media Lab.   I’m appreciative that I was able to bring this issue to mainstream society and hope you not only watch it, but help spread the message to the world.

Paywall: The Movie


Jason Schmitt/@jason_schmitt
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Communication & Media
Clarkson University

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