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VCU Libraries screens talked-about 'Paywall: The Business of Scholarship' Oct. 25

September 19, 2018

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship is getting lots of buzz in certain circles. The documentary, which shows the ugly truth of profiteering by academic publishing companies, premiered in Washington Sept. 5. It will be screened by VCU Libraries on both campuses Oct. 25, noon to 1:30 p.m.  To register Attendees are invited to bring a bag lunch; drinks and cookies will be provided. 

The film is scheduled during International Open Access Week because it focuses on the need for open access to research and science, questions the rationale behind the $25.2 billion a year that flows into for-profit academic publishers, examines the 35-40% profit margin associated with the top academic publisher Elsevier and looks at how that profit margin is often greater than some of the most profitable tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. An audience discussion will follow the film.

What's the background on this film? Here is coverage and a review from the Association of Research Libraries' newsletter: 

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.

This article by Judy Ruttenberg was pulished Sept. 6 and updated Sept. 11 on the Academic Research Libraries newsletter. The post also appears on the ARL Policy Notes blog. Updated with quotation from Geneva Henry on Sept. 11. It is used iwith permission. 

* * * 

The film will be simultaneously screened in two locations: Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences, Lecture Room 2-010, and James Branch Cabell Library, Room 250. An audience discussion will follow the film, led by VCU librarians, including Hillary Miller, scholarly communications outreach librarian at Cabell Library, and Nina Exner, research data librarian, at Tompkins-McCaw Library.

This event is free and open to all. For Tompkins-McCaw Library: parking is available for a fee in the 8th Street parking deck. For special accommodations, or to register offline, please contact Thelma Mack, research and education coordinator, at mackta@vcu.edu or (804) 828-0017.

For Cabell Library: Parking is available for a fee in the West Broad Street, West Main Street and West Cary Street parking decks. For special accommodations or more information, please contact the VCU Libraries Events Office at (804) 828-2951.

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