The Journal Nature just reported on a US court judgement that grants publisher Elsevier monetary damages from “websites that provide illicit access” to academic papers. To quote Bernie Sanders, “let me be very clear”: access to academic papers and academic journals cannot, by definition and under any circumstance, be illicit. I am sure it can be illegal. But it cannot be illicit.
The raison d’être of an academic journal is to disseminate scientific results, ideas, and debates. Academics disseminate their findings and ideas to help others with their findings and ideas, and ultimately to help the public by advancing knowledge and solving problems. The same public pays, in one way or another, for the research that is published in academic journals. The position that the content of academic journals should be restricted or protected is simply indefensible.
Journals first emerged when scholars saw the need for communication. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society started disseminating observations, ideas, and debates as far back as 1665. Having access to a salon stimulated discussion and inquiry, but being able to keep up with each other’s work at a distance was soon recognized to be much better. The printing press and mail and messenger systems allowed that. Publishing and distributing printed reports was expensive and complicated. It had to be supported financially. Individuals and institutions accepted as necessary the financial cost of participating in, and benefiting from the scientific literature. This system actually helped to open up science and allowed many to participate who otherwise could not have. Naturally, professional publishers facilitated the process and made a legitimate living from it. It was a herculean task, and its cost was more than justified by its benefits.
The situation today is quite different. The system that initially opened science and accelerated its pace is now closing it up and severely limiting its rate of diffusion. Journals evolved under a set of environmental conditions that no longer exist. Their purpose is now better served by other tools which are in the process of evolving.
If the goal is to disseminate and accelerate research, traditional journals are clearly not the way to go. Nothing now prevents an individual researcher from publishing their own work to a global audience at minimal individual cost. Anyone with a laptop and a nearby internet café can do it. Nothing prevents individual researchers from quickly and efficiently reviewing the work of others, no matter where they are, even in Antarctica or the space station. All that is missing is a bit of organization. Just as publishers (many of them also researchers) first organized the heavy, lumbering, printed journal system, so can a few innovators organize an ethereal internet dissemination system.
No, access to journals cannot be illicit, and journals, I am afraid, are now obsolete. They do more harm than good.