Documentary “Paywall: The Business of Scholarship” Premieres in Washington, DC

*This is a guest blog post by Judy Ruttenberg, ARL program director for strategic initiatives.*
*Updated September 11, 2018, with quotation from Geneva Henry.*

The documentary film Paywall: The Business of Scholarship made its global premiere in Washington, DC, on September 5, 2018, the same week that 11 European countries proclaimed that all their publicly funded research would be open access by 2020. Paywall producer and director Jason Schmitt and director of photography Russell Stone welcomed the DC audience, which comprised many of the scientists, publishers, and open access advocates featured in the 65-minute film. With minimal narration and expertly sequenced interviews, the film weaves together two principal stories: the exorbitant financial cost to access for-profit academic journals and the associated, incalculable human cost when doctors, patients, students, and would-be innovators all over the world hit paywalls that deny them access to the latest research.

Schmitt, an associate professor of media and communication at Clarkson University, told the DC audience that the film was made not for them but for their neighbors, friends, and colleagues who are not immersed in the world of academic publishing. To the uninitiated, the system makes little sense. The labor of writing articles is unpaid, as is much of the editing, peer review, and curation. Taxpayers fund most scientific research, whether done within government agencies, or through universities, and yet the results (until recently) have not been available to them. The top five academic publishers—which dominate the market—earn profit margins up to ten times that of top technology firms. While many of the film’s subjects acknowledged innovation and value within these publishing companies, Elsevier in particular, most were quick to say those contributions are outweighed by the costs to the scientific enterprise of excluding so many people from participating in it.

Some of Paywall’s most compelling interviews address the consequences of exclusion. Brian Nosek, executive director of the Center for Open Science (COS), described a meeting with a cohort of graduate students in Budapest who were all studying implicit cognition. Why so many students, in one sub-field? Because the papers are largely available on the open internet. Schmitt met with medical students and faculty in Africa and India who were unable to access the latest literature, and unable to contribute their own discoveries to it. Paywalls inhibit innovation because they minimize the chance that “the right person will be in the right place at the right time,” with respect to the literature, said Tom Callaway, from the open source software company Red Hat. And the audience laughed along with Sci-Hub creator Alexandra Elbakyan as, in a rare on-camera interview, she explained that Sci-Hub is targeting this exclusion by helping Elsevier fulfill its mission to make “uncommon knowledge common.”

Paywall is a celebration of the open access (OA) movement and its victories to level the playing field through preprint services like arXiv, and through policies mandating public access to government-funded research. The film is also a sober reflection on the OA movement’s progress, as for-profit academic publishers have both stalled and monetized open access while maintaining ever-increasing subscription revenue. The consortium of European national funders, called cOAlition S, announced their initiative this week with a set of principles addressing these exorbitant costs, including a cap on open access publication fees and a prohibition on publishing in hybrid journals (that charge a mix of subscription and open access fees). Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, emphasized in Paywall the critical importance of authors retaining copyrights in order for a large-scale open access system to function.

Geneva Henry, dean of Libraries and Academic Innovation at The George Washington University, also attended the premiere and offered this reflection:

Academic library leaders have been raising the concern for years about the unsustainable rate of inflation with online journals, particularly those supporting the sciences. We have shown our faculty and university leadership the solid data that demonstrates this problem, have cut journals each year to fit our budgets and have been met with criticism by the researchers, have provided information about open access and its advantages, and have received polite nods and smiles from everyone. But little has changed and the high-impact (high-cost) journals are still the ones that remain a priority for faculty publications. Paywall has the opportunity to present these audiences with perspectives from a wide variety of scholars and professionals who identify the issues we’ve been trying to communicate for so long. Its format as a film will enable broader distribution and hopefully be that communication vehicle for bringing this issue to the forefront of academic leadership. We’ve known for a long time that something needs to change and this film will hopefully serve as a catalyst for turning the tide on commercial publishing practices that limit the distribution of knowledge in our society. Perhaps librarians will now be viewed as the canaries in the coal mine rather than a bunch of chicken littles.

SPARC Europe, LIBER (the Association of European Research Libraries), and Research Libraries UK (RLUK) have all issued statements in support of cOAlition S. Peter Suber has also blogged about the plan.

Funded by a grant from the Open Society Foundations, Paywall will be screened by more than 175 universities this fall, and is available to stream under a CC BY 4.0 license at www.paywallthemovie.com. SPARC, a global coalition committed to making open the default for research and education, helped organize the DC premiere.