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Time to End the Slavery of Traditional Publishing

In a characteristically provocative talk last week, Richard Smith, who is on the Board of Directors of PLoS, accused traditional subscription-based publishers of acting like slave owners. And he compared open access advocates to abolitionists.

Richard was speaking at the BioMed Central Open Access Colloquium, alongside other "abolitionists," including my colleague Ginny Barbour, Senior Editor at PLoS Medicine. The talks have all been archived on the colloquium website.

In his slavery analogy, Richard recalled the famous George Yard meeting. On 22nd May 1787, 12 men met in a printing shop at 2 George Yard in the City of London determined to end slavery. At that time, said Richard, more people were slaves than were free and the British economy depended on slavery. Yet by March 1807 slave trading was abolished in the British Empire.

Today's traditional publishers, he argued, are the slave traders. The research articles and many of the academics who write them are the slaves. "And the shock troops of open access—Paul Ginsparg, Harold Varmus, Vitek Tracz, Pat Brown, Mike Eisen, Stevan Harnad—are the abolitionists," he said.

So when was the equivalent of the George Yard meeting in the biomedical publishing world? Some of the crucial events, said Richard, were:

Richard is certainly not alone in taking a human rights-based approach to the issue of restricted access to essential scientific and medical information. I've been doing a little research on the rights-based angle to restricted access, and I've been surprised at how many human rights declarations call for free and open access to scientific and medical information.

The United Nations, for example, has repeatedly championed the universal right to access scientific knowledge. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the the primary UN document articulating human rights standards and norms, states that everyone has the right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (article 27, section 1).

In 1999, the World Conference on Science, organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), adopted the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The declaration emphasizes “the importance for scientific research and education of full and open access to information and data belonging to the public domain” (article 3, section 38).

The declaration also notes that “Equal access to science is not only a social and ethical requirement for human development, but also essential for realizing the full potential of scientific communities worldwide and for orienting scientific progress towards meeting the needs of humankind” (article 4, section 42).

As John Willinsky argues so convincingly in his brilliant book The Access Principle (which is freely available online), the right to access knowledge "has a claim on our humanity that stands with other basic rights, whether to life, liberty, justice, or respect."

For the sake of global scientific progress, human development, and poverty alleviation, it is surely time to end the slavery of traditional publishing.

  1. In a recent move, the not-so-traditional publisher, PLoS announces that it will publish online the Protocols of Zion, arguing that traditional publishing is under the control of a secret Jewish conspiracy to subvert free speech and world domination of the World Bank. “Anti-slavery and anti-Semitism go hand in hand,” announced Richard Smith at a public even that featured hooded white gowns and lit torches.

  2. Thank you, Stevan, for denouncing this offensive analogy. The comparison of slavery to commercial publishing is simply vulgar. Mr. Smith’s arguments about access to information reveal a warped understanding of human rights. With this low blow, he trivializes the open access movement.

  3. Dollars to doughnuts that the UN was thinking more along the line of “hospitals” not “Acta Paediatrica” when they wrote this:

    Article 27
    (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

    Scientific and medical literature is useless without doctors, medicine, and hospitals.

    Invoking the images of lynching and a man in chains begging for freedom (or more likely for his life) to make a point about access to information is boorish and cruel.

    PLOS should be ashamed to be associated with this point of view. This isn’t censorship, it’s common decency.

  4. And Moses lead his people out of the land of Canaan, from the bondage of the Pharaoh of Subscriptions, to the land of Free Access. After crossing the sea of Governmental Red Tape, Moses and his people wandered in the desert of Google for 40 years, subsisting on poor peer review and high author charges. For once they were slaves in the land of Egypt, and now they are free.

  5. Just to add a clarification: slave trading may have ended in the Empire in 1807, but slavery itself wasn’t abolished in the Empire until 1833, when the Abolition of Slavery Act was published. The end of the trade and the end of slavery itself aren’t quite the same thing.

  6. It’s ironic to note that Richard Smith is now chief executive for United Healthcare Europe, part of the US for-profit insurer UnitedHealth Care Group. I don’t know how he reconciles taking such an offensively absolutist stand on access to information, when he apparently doesn’t object to working for a company that is a key part of a health-care system in which more than 45 million Americans lack any health coverage. Access to health information is effectively useless when you have no access to health care.

  7. This is so totally offensive. A 9-year old could tell that there is a huge difference between these two entities. Have you ever read accounts of slavery? People being held, forced to work, and killed agsinst their will…denied the rights of true citizens… is like having to pay to read
    medical literature which is of dubious value anyway?

    Smith should apologize for this one. And it’s hard to trust him too much, he didn’t raise too many objections when he was paid to edit BMJ- he raises alarms AFTER he’s a corporate tool…

  8. I am not at all sure that this statement ‘Access to health information is effectively useless when you have no access to health care’ is valid. One of the Commonist bits of advice that I give to patients is that despite all the expensive modern medicines for depression, obesity, hypertension etc the most effective strategies they have for maintaining their own health relate to: exercise, lifestyle changes and diet. The best estimates we have of what to do in relation to these things come from science and do not require doctors medicines and hospitals. Not much has changed since the improvement of the water supply to prevent cholera, that didn’t require doctors or hospitals either.

  9. I have listened to Smith’s talk. This comment ‘PLOS should be ashamed to be associated with this point of view’ is interesting. Even as a doctor who publishes in journals I find some of the comments made rather opaque. The one above appears to demonstrate significant over sensitivity to an abstract metaphor and indicates that the speaker has touched a tender spot. Such reactions tell me more about the respondent than the Speaker. When people are being sensitive, and a little precious, in such exchanges experience teaches that they are usually uncomfortable about their position and attitude, and are probably being less than entirely straight-forward and leaning towards motivations more related to self-interest.

  10. Over 1800 delegates representing 155 countries, 28 IGOs and more than 60 international NGOs registered at the World Conference on Science, including approximately 80 Ministers of Science and Technology, Research and Education or their equivalents. Slightly fewer than one in four national delegates to the Conference were women. The Conference also attracted more than 250 journalists from around the world, including a team from Nature which published a daily journal throughout the six-day Conference.

  11. The 1994 “subversive proposal” link is actually this. The self-archiving FAQ came a few years later and has been continuously updated ever since.

    The slavery analogy is rather too severe. So are the analogies with the pharmaceutical, oil and tobacco industry that have been used now and then. The industrial lobbying and FUD against OA has been shrill and shifty, but not quite sinister or inhumane. Mostly, it has been transparently hyperbolic, ineffectual, and even pathetic, and prominently exposed as such. After all, the publisher lobbying and FUD have all failed, resoundingly (and over 60% of journals have gone Green — and 15% of them Gold — of their own accord).

    And let’s not forget that there were other culpable parties in the far too slow transition to the optimal and inevitable, most prominent among them being the researchers themselves, the very ones who create this peculiar author give-away literature, written only for research impact rather than royalty income. Historians will have to note that in the end it required mandates from their institutions and funders to induce researchers at long last to do what was fully within their reach all along, and in their own best interests, as well as in those of their institutions, their funders, the vast R&D industry, and the tax-paying public that supports their research…

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