"Paywall" - A Reluctant Review

A film with all the moralism and none of the realism of an actual documentary. Plus bad music.

"Paywall" - A Reluctant Review

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship” describes itself as a documentary of the scholarly publishing industry, but watching it is more like watching a documentary about people who don’t understand business, or who just like to hear themselves talk.

In other words, there are many academics in it.

I didn’t want to watch this film, or review it, but it was kind of fun to watch various OA advocates moralize about profit margins and exploitation while seated at Harvard University, lounging in a plush study, or while enjoying very high salaries as non-profit executives. If publishers are, as these people assert, exploiting academia (which they are not), then these people appear to be just as good as anyone at exploiting the academic economy, and some are better than others.

There are plenty of red herrings in the film. Early on, we see Peter Suber arguing that price increases have outstripped inflation for a long time. What he doesn’t say (or perhaps doesn’t accept) is that this is due to the vast increases in outputs far more than anything else, so it’s a sign of successful funding and training of scientists and scholars, not a problem. In any event, we then hard cut to a litany of news clips of stories about college and university closures, clearly implying a cause and effect.

This is disingenuous and misleading — in other words, filmmaking’s version of a lie. Licensing of content is typically a small percentage of a university’s budget, and what leads to university or college closures is often severe mismanagement.

The film is a comedy of abused economic tropes. The concept of “scarcity” is introduced alongside paywalls, as if paywalls create scarcity. Does a cash register at a grocery store make you hungry? No, it allows you to buy from an abundant selection. The concept is misused here, in the service of sophistry and advancing an agenda that can’t stand on a solid logical foundation of its own.

There are some reasonable voices in the film. We hear from Rick Anderson (University of Utah), who provides a brief and rational counterpoint, but he’s immediately undercut by fringe anecdotes and emotionalism. Will Schweitzer (AAAS) calls Elsevier “a good contributor to the publishing community,” and he’s cut away from swiftly, and further laudatory answers are spliced against criticism so often and so quickly that any positive perspective is undermined at every turn. When Alison Mudditt of PLOS says positive things about Elsevier, her face is immediately blanketed with anti-Elsevier headlines.

It’s a pure hatchet job.

Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that the advocates being interviewed are  in favor of extended patronage, the notion that funders should control not only the funding of research but extend their patronage through to reaching the public. I wrote about this last month:

. . . when the opportunity to extend the patronage model to be inclusive of publishing presented itself, funders smarting from being constrained saw an opportunity — patronage end to end. Not only could they fund and control the research, they could fund and control publication events.

“Paywall” is — I’ll say it again — a hatchet job. There is a story to be told about Elsevier — how it emerged during fascist Germany to help struggling scholars, how it has employed thousands of people and trained hundreds of publishers, how it has improved millions of papers for a vast number of book and journal article authors. This side of their story is not even mentioned. Sadly, the anti-Elsevier narrative for this documentary was set before the first photons were captured.

All that said, the worst part of the movie is the song accompanying the end credits. It’s simply awful — forced lyrics, crackly singing, lame guitar work. I wish they would have licensed something better, but apparently that would be antithetical for these filmmakers, who don’t believe that quality (or fairness) matters.