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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Column: Whose library?

Until last month, the website library.nu acted as the Pirate Bay of academia, offering users free downloads of hundreds of thousands of scholarly books. But, like so many file-sharing servers before it, library.nu attracted the ire of some powerful enemies: An international group of publishers ranging from Cambridge University Press to Elsevier banded together to stop the site, serving it a cease-and-desist order.

It’s true that publishing companies perform a vital role in academia. In addition to editing, producing and distributing works, academic publishers provide an important quality-control function, helping to decide which scholarship is accurate, informed and worthwhile enough to publish through a rigorous selection process.

At the same time, however, as Christopher Kelty has pointed out, the library.nu takedown has revealed a bottleneck in academic production. In recent years, publishers have decided to sell scholarly books at very high prices for a select audience of university libraries and a handful of professors, often printing less than a hundred copies per book. Amateur scholars and even some libraries are now unable to afford many scholarly publications which, according to YBP Library Services, now cost an average of over $80 per copy.

The same thing is happening in academic journals, only worse. According to Glenn S. McGuigan, yearly subscription rates for journals have tripled since the mid-‘80s, with scientific research journals now averaging in the thousands of dollars.

So, even as the circulation of digital media becomes faster, cheaper and increasingly globalized, the circulation of print academic works becomes slower, more expensive and increasingly limited.

Authors don’t win here, either. With the exception of a few blockbuster textbooks, royalties for academic books are notoriously low, sometimes nonexistent. One blogger in the industry writes that a successful academic work, which might take years to write, is likely to fetch its author around the equivalent of “a nice night out on the town.” Scholarly journals, on the other hand, typically pay bupkis. Most professors only publish for the purposes of tenure, promotion and prestige.

Indeed, with this in mind, some scholars have endeavored to make their publications available for free online. The Open Access research movement has experimented with a variety of models for doing this, including journals which make their work freely available after an embargo period, journals which operate using author submission fees and scholarly self-archiving, when authors re-post their published material online.

But some of these scholarly practices have come under fire. Recently, philosopher and cultural theorist Steven Shaviro publicly announced a boycott of Oxford University Press after they asked him to sign away all of his rights to an essay in a “work for hire” contract, one which suggested that he had never owned his work in the first place. Much like their counterparts in music and software, publishing companies are turning to restrictive intellectual property laws to maintain their hold on creative production.

But this isn’t just another story about how the digital era has rendered yet another print or content industry obsolete. There is a direct parallel between the struggles against higher tuition and what we might call the privatization of academic publishing.

Just as the cost of university education increases, shutting out those who can’t pay, university presses and commercial academic publishers are raising their prices faster than the rate of inflation and thereby restricting scholarly knowledge to a small minority of affluent, professional, first-world researchers. Under this regime, knowledge ceases to be a common good, produced through free, public discourse, and becomes instead just another source of meager private profit.

But the ideal of the internet — and the public university — is that information wants to be free. That does not mean that we shouldn’t give material support to content providers or some kind of editing and peer review apparatus. It does, however, suggest that access to scholarly work, like education, should be as open as possible. If our work is genuinely meaningful, we as academics should do everything we can to disseminate our writing gratis to anyone who might be interested.

Contrary to the statement released by Jens Bammel of the International Publisher’s Association condemning library.nu, there are no “freeloaders” in the intellectual sphere. By propagating information through scholarly texts, we allow others to critique, respond to and build upon what we have thought, thereby increasing our own store of knowledge. Therefore, in the academy, we would do better to take up the example of Libertalia, the 17th century pirate utopia, making our scholarship a “common treasury” with “no hedge bounding any particular man’s property.”

JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English who can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.


  1. […] Literary studies, however, is as far from tweet-speed as possible. An article requires a minimum of a year to publish while a monograph takes even longer. One of the results of this academic sluggishness is bloat: scholarly books and articles expand to justify their long gestation periods and prohibitively high prices. (I have written about this predicament elsewhere.) […]


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