Many of you have probably used a road today, maybe even a highway. You didn’t think too much about it, the same way you didn’t worry about the electricity supply to your house, or the potability of your water. You pay taxes or utility bills, you get first world services — something we affluent first worlders are incredibly privileged to receive.
Now imagine one day you wake up, get in your car, and find a toll booth at the entrance to your local freeway or artery.
“What’s going on?” you ask.
“The government recently passed a law making it illegal for government agencies to allow you to use public works just because you’ve paid the taxes that create them,” says the attendant at the toll booth.
“That’s crazy,” you say.
“I guess they were worried that all of the contractors would go out of business if people just used roads funded by federal money.”
“Is it like a jobs thing, like they’re afraid all the construction guys are going to be out of a job if the government doesn’t step in? Like to protect the economy?”
“On the contrary,” the attendant says, “all of the construction workers are volunteers, from the guy operating the backhoe to the surveyors. It’s the accountants and CEOs in the back office who are earning salaries, and they’re raking in millions every year.”
It seems impossible, right? But if you replace roads with journals, you pretty much get the picture of what house bill 3699 will do: it will make it impossible for government agencies to mandate that you have the right to read the research that you as a tax payer have already paid for.
Actually, it gets stranger than that. Today we live in a world where we drive on roads mostly for free, but most government-funded research is behind a toll booth. HR 3699 is not designed to keep us from enjoying what we already rightfully are using every day, it is designed to make sure that the toll booths don’t get taken off the road.
The logic used by its proponents is even more bizarre: they are afraid that the roads (journals) will become unsafe and dangerous unless we continue to subsidize the salaries of the small number of back-office people who do very little of the work of producing journals but make all of the money.
I can see why Big Content is afraid: we, the construction workers, engineers, and planners, are all willing to work for free to make roads for whoever wants to use them, and we have free software that basically will run all the back office stuff. Do you see the beauty of this situation? It’s the executives, not the workers, who are afraid of being laid off once people realize that 90% of the people actually building the roads can do it without the help of the guys in suits.
Now it might be true that the small amount of work that these back office types do is of a higher caliber than that done by our automated software. But it might not be — and they are working hard to make sure that we don’t find out which way the cookie crumbles.
In case you haven’t gotten the punchline yet: academic publishing is highway robbery, and academic publishers make Rupert Murdoch look like a socialist.
It’s not clear to me that HR3699 will get very far in the legislative process but the sooner we academics start pushing back against craziness like this the better, especially given the conflict about SOPA that is on the horizon.