A Canadian Scholarly Publishing Cooperative

When a legally facilitated monopoly over the distribution of a certain economic good is judged to be operating against the interests of one substantial segment of the party on whose behalf that monopoly is granted, what recourse is there? In the case of deferential Canada, that recourse would take the form of an imaginative, slightly unrealistic, proposal for a cooperative work-around. And in this particular case, it would work like this, at least on a back-of-the-envelope or blog scale.

The segment of the party on whose behalf this monopoly has been granted is the Canadian academic community, and the monopoly right in question is copyright. This community, representing close to 40,000 full-time university faculty members, is certainly one of this country’s largest generators of copyrighted materials. They are also involved in the editing and production of over 300 academic journals in the social sciences and humanities published in this country, which is, again, a substantial segment of the country’s publishing community.

So how is it that the interests of this community are not being served by copyright? What the Canadian Copyright Act offers in legalese, the Statute of Anne 1710, generally regarded as the first copyright act in the English-speaking world, affords in eloquence, beginning with its subtitle, “An act for the encouragement of learning, by vesting the copies of printed books in the authors or purchasers of such copies.” It is hard to see today how the use of the copyright monopoly is encouraging the learning represented by Canadian faculty members and their journals.

One thing that encourages learning, one might reasonably hold I trust, is having access to learned materials. The goal of both the authors and journals, in this case, is the learning that can be encouraged by the distribution of such work. Where the monopoly rights of international corporate publishers and large scholarly societies are providing remarkably high returns on investment, as monopolies tend to do, the Canadian faculty member publishing in a Canadian journal may not be receiving anything close to the potential return, in terms of that encouragement of learning, on the considerable investment in the research and scholarship that it has required to produce their article. That is, those journals that are exercising the full extent of their monopoly right to circulate this work do not appear to be contributing to the encouragement of learning on anything like the scale that is now taking place through the circulation of knowledge achieved by those who are not exercising said rights, namely those who provide open access to their work through archiving or publishing.

While I am extremely interested in the legislative proposals of great legal minds for restoring a focus on the encouragement of learning in the proposed reform of Canadian copyright law, and very supportive of federal funding agency and university mandates for open access, I have a modest proposal for the Canadian scholarly publishing community to pursue in the meantime as a complement to legislation and mandates.

First, it would take a very large table, with Rowland Lorimer, Director of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Education, at the head, as this is as much, if not more, his idea, than mine. Then, the Canadian research libraries would bring all of the money that they currently spend subscribing to Canadian journals to the table. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the National Research Council of Canada would similarly bring all of the money they provide for scholarly publishing. Then the universities would pony up what they spend subsidizing and supporting these journals. The journal editors and scholarly associations would arrive with open books and open minds to talk about publishing costs. And the Public Knowledge Project, which I direct, would place on the table its federally supported open source publishing and indexing software, as well as its training and support. After much deliberation guided by Rowlie on how best to establish quality and financial controls, as well as to improve the scholarly and public value of this work, what just might emerge – don’t wake me until I’m finished please – is a Canadian scholarly publishing cooperative, operating in both official languages.

The purpose of this cooperative would be to cover the costs of publishing quality Canadian journals in a sophisticated online setting with universal online access provided to interested readers worldwide. Such a cooperative would not only provide interested Canadians with what they have earned a right to, but also represent both a striking gift and compelling model to the world, demonstrating how the encouragement of learning can make a considerable advance in the digital age.

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