Is it time to nationalise the academic publishers?

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.

11 thoughts on “Is it time to nationalise the academic publishers?

  1. Perhaps it would be good to distinguish between Brill (which is Dutch) and Brepols, the publisher of CPG / CPL /ClApocryphorum etc., which is Flemish, i.e., for the time being, Belgian. Regards

  2. Oops! Good catch. You are quite right. I repeated the name from the original tweets without thinking. I don’t have anything against Brill; far from it. I will fix this.

  3. >The absurd copyright laws give them ownership of materials lasting back a century.

    I languish in an enduring snit over this imposition.

    Your solution, Roger, is the correct one.

    Incidentally, if my people had been as wise as yours and bought up the rights (so-called) of the slave-owners (so-called), they would have spared 750,000 lives. Sadly, however, the course was set by bug-eyed heretics and ideologues.

  4. Me too. 🙁

    Respect for property is the foundation of freedom and every other kind of good. If we learn anything from the 20th c., we should learn that. So we ought to deal fairly with the academic publishers.

  5. It is ironic indeed that the academic world, financially supported by the taxes of society, allows its findings to be published by companies that “take them into custody”. If a member of that society would like to read the work, he’d have to fork out a swat of banknotes even though he already contributed to the financing of the academic’s work.

    I recently signed an employment contract for the second time in my life, and one line was exactly the same as in my first contract: any invention, improvement, etc. I’d make is the sole property of my employer. He pays me to do my work, and any result I deliver is his.

    In a similar way of reasoning, any academic that receives his/her income from society, as at least in my country is the case for many universities, should return his/her results to the same society at no additional costs (aside printing costs etc, though in today’s e-times…).

    At least, that is my point of view 🙂

  6. Imagine what would happen if you had a National Publishing Service. You write a paper on “Reasons to decrease the public sector”. Do you really think some minor public servant would allow your paper to be published?

    Across a whole range of topics if your paper does not follow the party line you would face this problem, and with but a single publisher there is no way you could get around this by going to another publisher.

    As bad as the current publishing situation is, nationalised publishing is not the solution.

  7. @Matthew, the idea of a “National Publishing Service” is truly ghastly, and not only for the reasons you outline. The board would be appointed as to a sinecure, which means the whole thing would bog down in petty officialdom.

    Indeed I have wasted an hour of my life on a road this morning, partly blocked by a lorry accident that could have been cleared in 5 minutes, but left to fester through bureaucratic negligence and incompetence, so I am very conscious of the weaknesses of state action.

    In an era when universities organise censorship and attacks on unpopular groups, the last thing we need is more centralisation.

    No, I was thinking purely of the gift of 100 years of scholarship, which academic publishers hold only because of state action to extend and extend the reach of copyright. That gift should be withdrawn; but the owners compensated.

  8. Surely one possible answer might be subvention by charitable trusts and such as the British Academy and its equivalent in other countries?

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