Faculty of Law, Ruhr University of Bochum, Bochum, Germany


It was Sir Isaac Newton to acknowledge that if he had seen further, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants (Turnbull 1959). Obviously, the production process in scientific research may be best characterized as being cumulative. Consequently, each scientific work can be seen as a “module” on which others can build, extend or debug.1 This brings the issue of appropriate access to scientific knowledge on the agenda. Access to the literature is provided by means of disseminating academic works via journal publications. The predominant journal publishing model, meanwhile, reverts to copyright privileges as a lever for the emergence of (commercial) publishers and printers. However, a recent debate in the (economic) literature reveals a growing dissatisfaction with this traditional publishing model.

There are eventually two reasons why the role of copyright for academic works is currently intensively being debated: First and foremost, the prices for academic journals have increased dramatically in the last two decades. Ramello (2010) finds that between 1986 and 2004 serial expenditures and serial unit costs have increased by 273 % and 188 %, respectively. At the same time, the consumer price index increased by only 73 %. In some disciplines—e.g. physics and chemistry journals—subscription prices even rose by more than 600 % (Edlin and Rubinfeld 2004). The vast increase of subscription prices was primarily driven by new options for publishers to excessively engage in price discrimination. In this respect, the copyright system provides the necessary prerequisite for such pricing strategies as it grants an exclusive right to control access to journal content. Moreover, the digital revolution ushered in by the internet eventually increased the options for price discrimination as it provided with the technological means for customization, versioning and bundling of information goods.2 The increase of journal subscription prices, finally, has significantly affected university libraries in their ability to subscribe to journals.3 Budget cuts at academic institutions in several countries have even worsened the situation and plunged (university) libraries into a serious crisis (serials crisis). Second and more interestingly, the copyright system that allows for such price settings seems rather negligible in the context of scientific research. While copyright seeks to stimulate the creation of works in art, literature and science by granting exclusivity as a means to appropriate a sufficient portion of the consumer rent, scientists are rather motivated by reputation gains from publishing.4 In fact, researchers are not primarily interested in financial gains from selling their research results—which are most often negligible anyway5—but in indirect rewards which accrue by means of reputation or CV-effects (Watt 2010, p. 1). The latter aspect is particularly relevant for the big body of peer-reviewed scholarly articles and their preprints. Peter Suber refers to these works as royalty-free literature, which has two important implications: First, the publisher receives the work from the authors at no costs. Second, the author should (ceteris paribus) be open to the publishing mode (open or closed access) as she is not losing any revenue (Suber 2012, p. 9). It is this type of literature that we will have in mind when analyzing the impact of copyright versus open access for the scholarly system as a whole.

With the advent of the internet and the birth of alternative business models for publishing academic works—especially the Open Access (OA) model—the aforementioned observations gained particular interest in the public debate. In particular, open access seeks to provide unrestricted (free) access to scientific literature via “the public internet, permitting any user to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full text of these articles […] without financial, legal or technical barriers […].” (BOAI 2002). Especially academic associations’ but also individual researchers’ initiatives have since advocated the new OA movement as a counterbalance to the traditional copyright model. Since the beginning of the new millennium several international and national initiatives—like the “Budapest Open Access Initiative” (2002),6 the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing” (2003)7 and the “Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in Science and Humanities” (2003)8—have tempted to foster open access to scientific knowledge. The vast increase in the number of OA journals9 (gold road) and the spread of open archives and repositories like SSRN (green road) clearly show the relevance that the OA movement has gained in academic publishing throughout the last decade. As most striking in the OA debate, scholars have been stressing the somehow preposterous nature in science. Accordingly, universities are paying twice: Once in salaries for the production of knowledge and again for the high subscription prices for journals to enable researchers to read their works. Journal publishers as such are acting as intermediaries as they provide with the selection process to prevent from adverse selection (Akerlof’s lemons).10 Thus, the acceptance for journal publication can be seen as a form of branding to signal the quality of a certain paper, where the reputation or ranking of a journal provides with an objective tool for valuation. However, the refereeing and review process as well as editing and formatting tasks is primarily provided by volunteers of the scientific community. So, it is actually the researchers themselves that provide journals with esteem as e.g. the names of well-known professionals appear in the editorial board. In this context, Bergstrom (2001) argues that a fully subsidized edit and review process for content to be published in expensive commercial journals hardly satisfy the criterion of economic efficiency. The added value of paying publishers by means of a transfer of copyright may hence be questioned. In the end, it may be asked as to whether the traditional copyright model or the open access model is better suited to the norms, incentives and organizational structure in the market for science (Eger and Scheufen 2012b, p. 53).

As a means of (economic) analysis, the topic has only recently aroused interest among scholars in the field of “law and economics”.11 Most attention was directed to a paper by Shavell (2010) who raised the question of actually eliminating copyright for academic works. Shavell’s model concludes as follows: (1) researchers are motivated by reputation, which increases in readership, (2) readership will likely be higher under open access and hence scholarly esteem, (3) the publishing costs from an “author pays” principle under open access will be covered by most universities, and (4) there are several reasons why a shift towards open access publishing will not be smooth without legal action (Eger and Scheufen 2012b, p. 55). Ever since, several papers have forwarded a lively debate in academia by reconsidering some of the modelling assumptions from which Shavell (2010) crucially derives his conclusions, showing a much more differentiated picture on the impact of a regime change. Accordingly, several questions—especially with respect to the international dimension of this intriguing question, e.g. the role of OA in developing countries—are still unresolved.

This work addresses some of these questions by providing with a comprehensive analysis on certain issues regarding the superiority of a copyright versus an open access regime in academic publishing. In particular, we will focus on the international dimension of this intriguing question. Standing on the shoulders of Shavell and others, the consequences of a regime change will be analyzed. A closer look at the international political economy of scientific research will particularly address issues in developing countries, seeking a bridge in the “digital divide” argumentation to involve all nations in science. Finally, a comprehensive analysis of copyright legislation and its alternatives in the light of international IP agreements offers prospects on the future of scientific publishing.

The remainder of the thesis is organized as follows: Chap. 2 will introduce to some fundamental economics, sketching the line of reasoning in the economics of copyright and the economics of science and revealing implications by comparing both systems. Chapter 3 shall provide an understanding of the characteristics and the market structure in the market for science and academic publishing as well as to the history and evolution of the OA movement. A comprehensive analysis of both regimes is Chap. 4 In this context, we will first focus on the effectiveness of either regime in stimulating research and producing social welfare in a purely global science community. In the following, policy implications and reforms of IP legislation at the international level are being discussed, especially accounting for the perspective of developing countries. Chapter 5 summarizes possible scenarios for the future of academic publishing. We will conclude in Chap. 6, stressing an agenda of seven recommendations to be considered for the future of academic publishing.


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