Scholarly publishing is an Inhuman Machine, Out of Control, Enclosing the Digital Commons

TL;DR Scholarly publishing is an Inhuman Machine, Out of Control. It is pillaging the digital commons.

I’ve spent the last 2 days lying awake trying to get my thoughts in order about Macmillan’s use of ReadCube to distribute “free” copies of closed access scholarly articles. I’ve blogged it here


There are more comprehensive (and you will probably say more balanced) comments in the excellent post by Scepticemia and links therein.

I am going to use “Macmillan” to cover both “Nature Publishing Group” and “Digital Science” (no WP entry, so see Timo Hannay and  ReadCube) as it owns (or at least controls) all of them. (Actually Macmillan is (?privately?) owned further by .  I’ve met the then owner some years ago at SciFoo ). I shall use the neologism “tcPublisher” to represent “traditional-closed Publisher”. It’s ugly but “publisher” is too general. tcPublishers include Macmillan, Science, ACS, Wiley, Springer, Elsevier. Their model is to sell subscriptions to scientific knowledge, protecting their market with legal, political, social, financial and technical barriers. By contrast the recent development of open-access only publishers (oaPublishers) is to generate revenue at the authorship stage and make content freely (Libre) available.

On the face of it Macmillan’s action seems a valuable, altruistic, gesture and many people have rejoiced at it. But my analysis is that this is simply offering back a small , very small piece of the commons which has been enclosed by the tcPublishing industry. I use the analogy of the I’ve written on this before, but in short the Scottish Highlands were ruthlessly appropriated by greedy landowners, houses were burnt, people were effectively killed or driven abroad.


(Credit WP + Geograph)

We love the remoteness now, but that was a community, people’s houses. People died in the Clearances.  Frank Fraser Darling, the great naturalist, described the Highlands as  “a devastated landscape” – and a “wet desert”, And it’s my contention that, unless we stop it, scientific scholarship – research as well as publications – will similarly become a devastated desert (if we are not already there).

Fundamental to this is the idea of the Commons. The commons is run by society for the benefit of society and traditionally applied to land, water, ecosystem, etc. The fundamental principle is that it’s available for everyone (or a societally valuable subset, such as farmers) who use the resources for the benefit of society. This almost always means a system of community managed rules and commons are still in existence today.

However because there is great value in a good commons it is always underthreat of appropriation by non-community entities. Historically these were often privileged invididuals (e.g. aristocrats) but now they include corporations. This is Enclosure; some snippets from Wikipedia:

An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century summed up the anti-enclosure feeling, and has been repeated in many variants since, even being applied to the contemporary privatization of the Internet:[30]

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater felon loose

Who steals the common from off the goose

… George Orwell wrote in 1944

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

George OrwellAs I Please, Tribune, 18 August 1944[32]


I believe that the same is happening (or has happened) in Scholarly publishing. It’s typified by closed access, with social, legal, economic and technical barriers.


“Anytime that someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you but won’t give you the key, that lock’s not there for you.” Cory Doctorow.

Here’s my picture of enclosure. commons

The blue line is a society that manages its commons. The red line is enclosure, which is not being done for society’s benefit. Enclosure is an unjust process and leads to continuing injustice. Many of today’s nation-political problems are caused current or historical colonisation and perpetuated by neo-colonialisation, of which TTIP is a typical manifestation. I argue that we have already lost much of the digital commons and we must reclaim as much as we can. Scientific knowledge is, I believe, a basic human right, especially when funded by the commons (nations, societies, charities). tcPublishers have enclosed it.

It’s possible to have commercial organizations who make a reasonable income by managing commons for the benefit of society. Management costs money and needs to be recovered. The problem with tcPublishing is that society has very little (if any control) over what is managed, how, and at what cost. Individuals like me have no say. I am an economic chattel regarded by tcPublishers as a free source of manuscripts for their machine, a free source of reviews and with no power in any of this. (Even a large oaPublisher has told me that their raw material is authors and that they market to them, not readers).

I’m going to develop the theme that tcPublishing is now an inhuman machine, out of control, but I will need another post and I have to write some code. [The mess in scholarly publishing is incredibly destructive of our creative abilities.]


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Scotland's (main, but not only) #OpenScience #OpenAccess #OpenData #OpenSource #OpenKnowledge & #PatientAdvocate Loves blogging Glasgow, Scotland.

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