A few tweets this morning were complaining about the inaccessibility of the main reference works for patristics, the Clavis Patrum Latinorum and the Clavis Patrum Graecorum. These works are essentially lists of works by patristic authors. Each is assigned a number, and the opening words of the first line are given. If the text appears in the edition of J.-P. Migne, the reference is given; if not, the manuscript where it may be found.
As may be imagined, it is impossible to work in patristics without access to these volumes.
The complaints were that the volumes – numerous and very expensive – were generally not held by university libraries or, if they were, could not be borrowed. A respondent slyly suggested that perhaps pirate PDFs were available somewhere; which is one answer. Another said that Brepols, who publish the volumes, would undoubtedly eventually make them available online. This drew the retort that access would be through a paywall, and that only tier-1 universities would subscribe for it.
Every word of this is true. We have academics unable to access the tools of their trade, themselves compiled by other academics, because they are – legally – the property of a Belgian publishing house who have to pay their bills somehow, and do so by charging high fees for access.
What is the answer?
A further tweeter said that she would make sure all her work was open access. This is laudable. But it doesn’t solve the problem.
The situation is rather akin to that in place in the British Empire when slavery was abolished. There were great numbers of slave owners, who had obtained their property quite legally, and were financially invested in it. But the public interest was to abolish slavery.
The rulers of that day, being honest man and leaders of a great commercial nation, did not do what the lesser men of today might do. They didn’t pillage their countrymen. Instead they bought out the rights of the slave-owners. The community as a whole had decided; and the community as a whole paid to make it happen. Nobody was robbed. There was no damage to the right of private property, the basis for all civilised life.
Surely the situation is much the same now. The academic publishers once served a vital purpose. That purpose is disappearing. The absurd copyright laws give them ownership of materials lasting back a century. The public interest is that this material should be freely accessible online.
The answer, surely, is for western governments to buy out the academic publishers. The Belgian government needs to buy out Brepols and free the archive. The terms might be negotiated; but the end is necessary, and it should be pursued. The same applies to Brill in the Netherlands, and so on.
It might be objected that it is rather hard on the middle classes – the only people who pay tax, and who are currently being fleeced of their savings by low interest rates and money-printing – to add to their burdens. There is merit to this, and it needs to be considered.
But I do not see how else the problem can be solved.
Free access to learning is a national necessity. Let our politicians find a way.