Although most academic research is funded by the public, universities all but force their scholars to publish their results in journals that take ownership of the work and place it behind expensive pay walls.
Centuries ago, when printing and mailing paper journals was the most efficient way to disseminate new knowledge, a symbiotic relationship developed between scholars, who had ideas they wanted to share, and publishers, who had printing presses and the means to convey printed works to a wide audience. Transferring copyright to publishers, which protected their ability to recover costs and profit from their investment, was a reasonable price for authors to pay to further their disseminating mission.
But with the birth of the internet, scholars no longer needed publishers to distribute their work. As NYU’s Clay Shirky has noted, publishing went from being an industry to being a button.
Had the leaders of major research universities reacted to this technological transformation with any kind vision, Swartz’s dream of universal free access to the scholarly literature would now be a reality. But they did not. Rather than seize this opportunity to greatly facilitate research and education, both within and outside the academy, they chose instead to reify the status quo.