Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The past, present and future of scholarly publishing

By Michael Eisen

I gave a talk recently at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about science publishing and PLoS. For the first time in my life, I actually gave the talk (largely) from prepared remarks, so I thought I’d post it here. (An audio recording of the talk with Q&A is available here.)


On January 6, 2011, 24 year old hacker and activist Aaron Swartz was arrested by police at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for downloading several million articles from an online archive of research journals called JSTOR.

After Swartz committed suicide earlier this year in the face of legal troubles arising from this incident, questions were raised about why MIT, whose access to JSTOR he exploited, chose to pursue charges, and what motivated the US Department of Justice to demand jail time for his transgression.

But the question that should have been asked is why downloading scholarly research articles was a crime in the first place. Why, twenty years after the birth of the modern Internet, is it a felony to download works that academics chose to share with the world?

The Internet, after all, was invented so that scientists could communicate their research results with each other. But while you can now get immediate, free access to 675 million videos of cats (I checked this number today), the scholarly literature – one of greatest public works projects of all time – remains locked behind expensive pay walls.

Every year universities, governments and other organizations spend in excess of $10 billion dollars to buy back access to papers their researchers gave to journals for free, while most teachers, students, health care providers and members of the public are left out in the cold.

Even worse, the stranglehold existing journals have on academic publishing has stifled efforts to improve the ways scholars communicate with each other and the public. In an era when anyone can share anything with the entire world at the click of a button, the fact that it takes a typical paper nine months to be published should be a scandal. These delays matter – they slow down progress and in many cases literally cost lives.

Tonight, I will describe how we got to this ridiculous place. How twenty years of avarice from publishers, conservatism from researchers, fecklessness from universities and funders, and a basic lack of common sense from everyone has made the research community and public miss the manifest opportunities created by the Internet to transform how scholars communicate their ideas and discoveries.

I will also talk about what some of us have been doing to liberate the scholarly literature – where we have succeeded and where there is more work to be done. And finally, with these efforts gaining traction, I will describe where we are going next. ...

This post originally appeared on Michael Eisen's blog "it is not junk." Read the rest of his speech here