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The Monopoly of Journal Subscriptions and the Commodification of Research

The Monopoly of Journal Subscriptions and the Commodification of Research

Representative image of a library of academic journals. Photo: Selena/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

The proposal for an “open science policy” that will ensure that the results of, and information generated by, all publicly-funded research become freely accessible by everyone and that all will have free access to bulk subscriptions of important scientific journals across the world has understandably been welcomed by people, especially scholars and academia. It is, therefore, a proposal that demands closer scrutiny of its merits and possible demerits.

Accessibility of publicly-funded research

The first question that arises is, why isn’t this information already freely accessible to everyone? After all, all publicly-funded research is eventually funded from public taxes and we all pay taxes through every item we buy, leave alone all the other cesses and duties. In fact, there are already several University Grants Commission (UGC) schemes to make research findings accessible to educational institutions. These include IndCat (1991) that has a store of 1.42 crore books and 2.7 lakh research theses for open access (OA) contributed by 317 universities (out of a total of 789); Shodh ganga (2010), also OA, has 1.9 lakh theses from 375 universities; E-Shodh Sindhu (2016) has over 7,000 e-journals and 30 lakh e-books for reference by 178 universities and 84 technical institutes and N-List opens up over 6,000 e-journals and 32 lakh e-books to about 3,000 colleges.

The trouble is that a large number of students who are completing their Masters or PhD theses are still not depositing them with Shodhganga. E-Shodh ­Sindhu merged three consortia initiatives, namely, UGC-INFONET Digital Library Consortium, National Library and Information Services Infrastructure for Scholarly Content(N-LIST) and INDEST-AICTE Consortium, and provides access to qualitative electronic resources, including full-text, bibliographic and factual databases, to member institutions, including centrally-funded technical ones, universities and colleges, at lower rates of subscription. Hence, the resources available depend on what each institution can subscribe to.

For such member institutions, E-ShodhSindhu provides a tremendous resource for researchers and teachers to download articles, texts, technical standards and policy documents free of charge. However, the range of what may be downloaded is limited to the subscriptions opted for by the respective institutions. Even at heavily funded institutions like the IITs, a large number of journals, publishers and paid websites remain out of bounds because of the financial crunch.

Since the current proposal is an offspring of the draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) that was released at the beginning of 2021, we also need to have a closer look at this policy and how and why it has changed.

The first Science Policy Resolution of 1958 aimed to promote the “cultivation of science and scientific research” by ensuring an adequate supply of scientists, who would work towards self-reliance. Twenty-five years later, the Technology Policy Statement of 1983 shifted the focus from science to “technology” that would be indigenous as well as imported and thus integrate “socio-economic sectors with the national R&D system”.

Another generation later, as the Indian economy was opened up for FDI and over 100 global companies had set up R&D centres in India, the Science and Technology Policy of 2003 focused on the “investment” required for R&D. The Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy of 2013 took this further, to emphasise “India’s global competitiveness” to position “India among the top five global scientific powers in S&T”. The latest Science Technology and Innovation Policy of 2021 promotes “entrepreneurship” and integrating “Traditional Knowledge Systems” to “make the Indian STI ecosystem globally competitive”.

It is in the context of this policy ecosystem, where “Foreign Multinational Companies (MNCs) will collaborate with domestic private and public sector entities” that we can come to the question of what does “open access” mean? When any author/researcher/institution publishes a book, mo­nograph or report or when a re­searcher publishes a scientific paper in a journal and that material becomes available free on the internet to everyone, that availability is termed open access. There are many attempts to make scientific papers available free, but it is much more difficult to do the same for books, reports and materials from private organisations.

Most educational and research institutions in rich countries have better funded versions of E-ShodhSindhu that provide free access to printed material to their staff and students. In addition, there are digital libraries such as JSTOR that provide free access to a large number of books and scientific papers. However, all are not free to everyone and new publications are usually not included. Similarly, membership based groups such as Research Gate and also help researchers make their work available to others. However, none of this gives most Indian scholars a level playing field in the international context.

Commodification of the output of scientific research

The problem is that through this global competitiveness, the products of scientific research have been turned into commercial commodities. Earlier, most academic journals were published by academic societies, trusts or associations, and so the publications were usually not very expensive or available free to the group’s members. Now, the publication of most journals has been turned over to commercial publishers. These journals require the author(s) to submit a soft copy of the manuscript to the publisher, which is then published with or without a review process and sold at a price. The publisher does not pay the authors or the reviewers, but pockets all the profits.

The standard procedure is for a reader to pay a fee to the journal to read or download a paper. Some papers are termed as “open access”. This means that the reader can download the paper “free” of charge. Such open access papers fall under two categories: the author pays a fixed charge for publication or the publisher decides to include a few in that category as their contribution to “public interest”. It is because of this that many countries have mandated that any publication resulting from taxpayer’s money be available free to everyone. For example, in February 2013, the US government announced its new OA policy which mandated all publications arising from taxpayer-funded research to be made free after a year’s embargo period.

Both the procedures, however, make knowledge into a commodity, for which either the reader or the researcher has to pay for research that should have been free in the first place, while the payment is received by an entity that has had nothing to do with the research anyway! Such a system can be extremely problematic for the majority of knowledge creators and users who do not have the resources to make the payment.

Hence, even if a citizen requires a basic socio-economic statistic about India from a site officially inaugurated by the then minister, Department of Statistics in 2000, he has to pay over Rs 54,000 for six months, while an institution, over Rs 1 lakh for 12 months. This is when all the data has been collected by a host of publicly funded institutions. Any national or international journal in the natural or social sciences has a minimum annual subscription of over Rs 3,000 and there are more than 3,000 to 4,000 high-impact scientific journals alone.

Who are the publishers of these journals that the government wishes to negotiate with for a “one nation, one subscription” policy in the interests of the people? Five companies that control more than three-fourths of the estimated revenue from journals are Elsevier ($3,615mn in 2019), Wiley-Blackwell ($1,800mn), Taylor & Francis ($767mn), Springer ($717mn) and Sage ($398mn). American Chemical Society ($605mn) is nestled among them.

Professor Vincent Larivière (University of Montreal) has reported that Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor and Francis, and Sage alone published more than 50 percent of the articles in 2013. This proportion has to be much higher now. Three of them Elsevier, Wiley, and ACS recently filed a suit in India asking that two websites Sci-Hub and Library Genesis (or Libgen) be blocked from making available free downloads of research papers and books. They filed cases against these websites earlier in the West, accusing them of piracy. Evidently, these publishers wish to protect the enormous profits they make from a product (knowledge) that they have not created. By negotiating bulk subscriptions with them, is the government of India serving them or the people?

It is because of the high price of the subscriptions to the journals owned by these firms that Sci-Hub and Libgen emerged to give back to the academic community what it had produced, but been compelled to give free, or on payment of charges, to the publishers. Libgen was founded in 2008 by Russian scientists, while Sci-Hub was started in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a young IT researcher from Kazakhstan. The two websites represent a way of literally breaking free from the bondage of high-cost and high-theft monopolistic publications. Currently, Libgen claims to provide free access to more than 80 million science magazine articles, while Sci-Hub has an equivalent number of papers in its collection.

Considering that India is the world’s third-largest producer of scientific articles, Indian researchers download about seven million papers every year from these websites. At an average of $40 per paper, this represents an annual loss of about $300mn to the publishing corporations, from India alone, as compared to the $200mn that Indian research institutes spend on subscriptions to paywalled journals and articles. Even American college students are aficionados of these sites. Is it any wonder that the global corporations are worried?

Legal purview

Where information is so crucial for international research as well as global commerce, the next question is, who should control its flow and what is the legal position regarding this? So far, under international copyright law, the corporations have managed to establish a stranglehold over the possession and use of all knowledge. By moral sense, however, knowledge created by individual men and women should belong to all humanity. This has been the basis of the legal challenge offered to corporations over converting traditional knowledge into commercial property.

Using the prior art provision in the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime and contents of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, a database assembled by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the AYUSH Ministry containing information on over 2.3 million medicinal formulations in multiple languages, has succeeded in getting dozens of applications to patent this information either cancelled or withdrawn.

The IPR regime itself depends on various laws such as The Trade and Merchandise Marks Act, 1940; The Copyright Act, 1957; The Patent Act, 1970; The Geographical Indications of Goods Act, 1999; The Designs Act, 2000; The Semiconductor Integrated Circuits Layout Design Act, 2000; The Protection of Plants & Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001; and The Biological Diversity Act, 2002. Under the Copyrights Act, a copyright is created when the work is created and given a material form, provided it is original. The Act provides for registration, but, unlike US law, it does not confer any special rights or privileges with respect to the registered copyrighted work. It is only evidentiary material for courts and therefore, only raises a presumption that the person in the Register is the actual author.

In urgent infringement suits and criminal proceedings, registration may be of tremendous help. But copyright notice is not necessary to claim protection. When a magazine or journal publishes any research work, the law states that, in the absence of a contract to the contrary, the proprietor of the publication shall be the first owner of copyright. This is what enables journals to own the copyrights to scientific knowledge.

So the final question is whether the government of India should try to address the basic problem of proprietorship of knowledge, and its subsequent commercialisation, by negotiating for a better deal from journal proprietors for access at less exorbitant fees; or should it examine how to change the law to give proprietary ownership to the creators of the knowledge?

The earlier bulk subscriptions negotiated by Uruguay and Egypt, cost them about Rs 48 per capita, while India currently spends about Rs 12 per capita. For India to arrive at an agreement at the same rate as Uruguay and Egypt would mean an expenditure of roughly Rs 6,500 crore (or $890mn). As it is, in India, public funding for research is scarce and becoming scarcer by the day through market-friendly policies. Changing the law, on the other hand, would either mean modifying existing legal provisions or at least passing legislation with respect to publicly funded research and its products within India as well as free access to such research globally.

Section 57 of the Copyright Act grants an author “special rights” to claim proprietorship, that subsist even after the author has expired, but this claim may be made only when the work has been distorted, mutilated or modified, so that it is prejudicial to the author’s honour or repute. However, the choice of options would really depend upon the government’s political commitments and to what extent the producers of knowledge are able to organise and claim their entitlements.

What other choices do we have? In the present situation of copyright laws agreed by India and the stranglehold of a few major publishers owning most of the journals, the choices are not easy. If the government is really interested in improving Indian scholars’ access to data and research publications in India, it has to start at home. Laws and rules have to be put in place which say that results of all data gathered and research done at taxpayers’ expense (state and central) must be available free of charge on the internet. Wherever privacy issues are involved, such data banks can be anonymised.

As far as commercial publications are concerned, under the present laws, we will have to depend upon a more efficient and expanded version of E-ShodhSindhu. This would mean that the service should be available to any organisation at bulk subsidised rates in a cafeteria format. The charges could be indexed so that smaller bundles cost less and the charges increase progressively with the size of the bundle. In the meantime, the government can also set up a website where sources (national and international) providing free downloads of documents on different topics are listed.

Meanwhile, we must be quite clear that Sci-Hub and Library Genesis are providing an enormously useful service to scholars all over the world. It will be a long time before any official agency in India will be able to provide a comparable service. The best we can hope for is that the court cases against them languish for as long as possible as they do for much less laudable causes.

Dunu Roy is an ecologist, engineer and founder of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre. Dinesh Mohan is Honorary Professor, IIT Delhi, and works on transportation and safety issues. This article originally appeared on India Legal and has been republished here with permission.

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