In the scramble to gain market share in cyberspace, something is getting lost: the public interest. Libraries and laboratories—crucial nodes of the World Wide Web—are buckling under economic pressure, and the information they diffuse is being diverted away from the public sphere, where it can do most good.
Not that information comes free or “wants to be free,” as Internet enthusiasts proclaimed twenty years ago.1 It comes filtered through expensive technologies and financed by powerful corporations. No one can ignore the economic realities that underlie the new information age, but who would argue that we have reached the right balance between commercialization and democratization?
Consider the cost of scientific periodicals, most of which are published exclusively online. It has increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1986. The average price of a year’s subscription to a chemistry journal is now $4,044. In 1970 it was $33. A subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurologycost $30,860 in 2012—the equivalent of six hundred monographs. Three giant publishers—Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Springer—publish 42 percent of all academic articles, and they make giant profits from them. In 2013 Elsevier turned a 39 percent profit on an income of £2.1 billion from its science, technical, and medical journals.
All over the country research libraries are canceling subscriptions to academic journals, because they are caught between decreasing budgets and increasing costs. The logic of the bottom line is inescapable, but there is a higher logic that deserves consideration—namely, that the public should have access to knowledge produced with public funds.
Congress acted on that principle in 2008, when it required that articles based on grants from the National Institutes of Health be made available, free of charge, from an open-access repository, PubMed Central. But lobbyists blunted that requirement by getting the NIH to accept a twelve-month embargo, which would prevent public accessibility long enough for the publishers to profit from the immediate demand. More