Fake news: Sherlock among the tulips


By Matthias Egger

(From "Horizons" no. 113 June 2017)​​​

The camera roams over the picturesque Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, but the horror is just around the corner. The bloated corpse of a young man is being recovered from the Bouwersgracht. The dead man is a Russian cancer researcher who has made millions of scientific articles freely accessible online via an Internet platform, and thereby made himself liable to prosecution. In his pocket he has a receipt from a taxi ride to Sonarweg 31, the headquarters of the Greed Elsegier Concern, the most powerful scientific publishing company in the world. A few days later, its CEO is found dead in his office chair.

With its exciting plot, this imaginary episode of a successful TV thriller series would lay bare the scandalous monopolistic misuse of power by scientific publishers. Their business model is ingenious: they take knowledge financed by tax monies and privatise it. They publish the results of this research in journals to which the universities have to subscribe at inflated prices – again paid for with tax money. The market is dominated by just a few publishers who exercise their power ruthlessly. With their ever-rising prices they have long reached profit margins of over 30 percent. The salary of the CEO of Reed Elsevier was GBP 16 million in 2015.

If only such a thriller could really be made, then awareness might be raised, among both the public and our politicians, of the importance of the Open Access movement, whose aim is simply to prevent the general public from having to buy back knowledge from academic publishers that their tax dollars have already paid for.

But we don't have to wait for TV to tell the world about it. We ourselves have the power to change the rules of the game. We simply have to stop funding this all-too-profitable business with public money.

Matthias Egger has been the President of the National Research Council since January 2017.