Free access to science... but at what cost?

At the last meeting of CERN’s Scientific Information Policy Board (SIPB), on 20 October this year, participants were informed of a practice that is disconcerting to say the least: some publishers are compiling books from free access material, which they then market at relatively high prices.


Some theses, which are freely accessible on CDS, are being sold at incredibly high prices on Amazon. The problem is that buyers don't know they are buying theses that are available for free.

“When I found out, I was really astonished!” admits Tullio Basaglia, head of the Library Section of CERN’s Scientific Information Service. Tullio was referring to the distinctly unorthodox practice of certain unscrupulous publishers who are selling freely available information! They simply poach articles from Wikipedia, compile them, bind them into a book, and then sell them at a high price under the name of a non-existent author. Thus, for instance, a certain Lambert M. Surhone who appears to be the author of almost 120,000 books on subjects ranging from US courts of law to cacti...

As Tullio Basaglia explains: “There are two types of documents: what we call ‘robot books’ and theses. The first are compilations of text poached from Wikipedia. They are nothing more than a series of articles strung together, one after the other, as they appeared online.  If you flick through one of these books, you will notice that no attempt has been made to edit the material. The second type concerns the scientific community more directly. These are doctoral theses that are being marketed; at the very least this goes against CERN’s principles, if not those of science in the broadest sense.”

Marketed? Yes, because in addition to selling these books marked “High-quality content by Wikipedia articles”, some of these publishers manage to convince young researchers to entrust them with the publication of their theses. Sometimes the author of the thesis accepts a publisher’s offer and the publisher then prints the thesis in the form of a book.  So what is the financial advantage? None at all for the author of the thesis (except perhaps for a few free copies) as the publisher scoops up all the revenues from the sale. This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow when you know that some of these theses retail at about 100 euro.

Beyond the purely financial dimension, this calls into question the whole principle of free access. “Our policy is free dissemination of science,” stresses Basaglia. “All the theses written at CERN or in collaboration with the Organization should be submitted to the CERN Document Server to which there is free access.* The very idea of selling them is in total violation of these principles.”

So who is buying these books?  It is quite difficult to believe, but in the case of theses it’s the authors themselves who are forking out the money. “It’s rather gratifying to see one’s name on the cover of a book, especially if it’s available through Amazon," admits Tullio. “Some young researchers buy additional copies of their own thesis to give to their family and friends. Some libraries may also be lured into procuring such books because it is very difficult to identify them as doctoral theses."

In addition, it is very difficult to determine the point at which a publication crosses the line of plagiarism. Articles in Wikipedia, appropriately named the free encyclopaedia, are not protected by copyright. And in the case of books based on theses, the author is always a party to the process from the outset. It is therefore up to all of us – science enthusiasts, librarians and researchers, alike – to shoulder our responsibility to ensure access to science remains free.

*More information here.

You can consult the presentation Tullio Basaglia gave at the SIPB meeting here.

by Anaïs Schaeffer