Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working off-and-on on a little side project. The idea is that there are lots of people that are not in a position to visit a university or that don’t have a public library with ‘access’ at their disposal but that do need to be able to read scientific papers. Ever since the advent of the world-wide-web the funding for public libraries has slowly but surely dried up. There are fewer of them and they offer ever fewer facilities, including more limited or non-existent access to scientific journals. And that is a pity because libraries offer something the web does not, access to a wealth of copyrighted materials for a very small fee.
Scientific research costs lots of money. So much that most if not all research can trace its funding back to public money. Every paper cites the papers that it builds upon, and even if a piece of research is not funded directly with public money you won’t have to trace back very far through the citations before you hit papers that were funded with public money. So, effectively, *ALL* research that is conducted is funded directly or indirectly through public money.
Historically, publishing anything was a costly affair. Copyrights on scientific papers submitted to journals were routinely assigned to those journals by the scientists that wrote the articles. The copyrights didn’t matter much to them as long as their work made it out into the world, to get to an audience larger than the scientists themselves could reach. Quite a few of those journals even had such copyright assignment as a requirement. At that time nobody could foresee that the world would change to the point where this mechanism no longer made any sense at all. Lots of people are aware of this problem, but nobody is in a position to do much about it. The reason why is that the lobbying power and the legal armies that are at the disposal of the few publishing companies that find themselves in the luxurious position of holding hostage the last 70 years or so of the results of scientific research are so formidable that they serve as an effective deterrent against correcting this historic mistake.
It’s a beautiful business to be in: publish research that you took no part in, claim the copyrights to the results of that research, publish the research in a very expensive journal, publish reprints at exorbitant fees and finally, when a more efficient distribution method appears get rid of all the costly components of the business but keep the prices the same. According to one person I spoke to who is knowledgeable about the publishing field the profit margins dwarf even those of the publication of pornography.
In our current technological age storing and distributing 50 to 75 T of data (estimated amount of storage required to store all the papers produced historically) is an affair that even a private individual can afford. Passing a paper from a central service to a person that wishes to read that paper no longer takes a printed volume and a physical distribution network. Such a service can operate not on several 10’s of Euros/Dollars per reprint of a document (which was, even when it was needed excessive), but it can operate on very small fractions of pennies. And yet, the publishing industry that seeks rent on the content that (they claim!) has been assigned to them routinely charge excessive amounts of money for access to this information. Many words have been written about this subject, but in the end the publishers have pockets deep enough and lobbying power sufficient to protect their business interests against the very people that fund the research.
If you are living in a country that is poor, if you are a private individual (whose taxes have likely been used in part to fund the very research you might be interested in) and if you have a desire to enhance your understanding of how some aspect of the universe works, or if you want to help lift your country out of poverty by studying hard chances are that you will not be able to do so without paying exorbitant amounts of money to parties that did not contribute to the original research in a meaningful way.
A Small Detour
In the 1980’s, when computers were a bit more scarce and a lot less powerful than they are today, and when a half decent development environment was even more scarce I finally found my home on the Atari ST, an MC68K computer that was more suited to writing games on than software of a more productive nature. It came with your option of several not-so-hot and fairly buggy programming languages, mostly limited to BASIC and assembler. And then a little known company called The Mark Williams Company came out with ‘Mark Williams C’, a very good C compiler and a standard library implementation to go with it. I was hooked instantly, this was what I’d been looking for, a computer with a very powerful CPU and a more ambitious amount of memory than what my 8 bitters could provide, an environment to learn more about programming (I’d been reading Kernighan and Ritchie’s introduction to the C programming language back-and-forth but had no access to an environment where I could actually write programs and try them, so ‘desk checking’ was my lot until that point).
Mark Williams C really changed my life, it literally launched my career as a free-lance programmer. It came with a *fantastic* reference manual, that I kept with me until it fell apart from use and even my attempts at taping it together were no longer enough to keep it serviceable. Long after all my Atari machines had all died from old age and hard use that manual came with me, to Poland where I lived for a while, and then back to the Netherlands.
The Mark Williams Company derived its curious name from William Mark Swartz, the father of the man that ran the company, Robert Swartz.
Late in 2010, A young man named Aaron Swartz, the son of the above mentioned Robert Swartz worked very hard to achieve one of his goals, to ensure that everybody would have access to scientific papers, no matter whether they were affluent or whether they were affiliated with a university or not. He went about it in an unfortunate way which got him into trouble with the law. Aaron had already achieved several noteworthy victories for someone as young as he was but the combined might of the United States federal justice system and MIT (who insisted on labeling him a felon and jailing him) proved too much for him to deal with and he took his own life on the 11th of January 2013. Volumes have been written about Aaron’s saga, I won’t go into the details but if you feel like reading more about it I recommend this slate article.
What really bothers me that someone so young, so nice and accomplished and so idealistic would be pressured to such an extent for trying to do something that was good by any definition of the word that I’m familiar with.
Most of the work I do is born from a love for my profession, this work was born in anger and frustration at a system that causes the best and brightest lights to be extinguished.
So, here is ThePaperBay.com, a way for those that seek scientific papers to make contact with those that have access. It’s my salute to the man that tried to give us access to all the products of science and a very small token of gratitude to his dad.
We should all wish for sons to be so proud of.