Steal This Book

Review of

Open Access

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 230 pp.

Peter Suber, Open AccessIn 1971, Abbie Hoffman mischievously named his first book-length screed Steal This Book, and founded a publishing company, Pirate Press, because no existing publisher would touch it. It was a countercultural manifesto against the “pig” establishment. The networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC, plus the upstart Fox—were “evil corporate conglomerates” spewing capitalist lies.

Flash forward four decades, and the inmates are running the asylums. Establishment journals, including Issues in Science and Technology, publish their content freely and openly online, inviting readers to “steal” their articles. The old TV networks still exist, but the one that really matters is the global Internet, where free information rules. The born-digital generation regularly pirates copyrighted content or at least expects information to be free and instantaneous. And there are even political “Pirate” parties formally established in several countries in the European Union.

Outraged? Outsourced? Or just curious? Peter Suber’s book Open Access provides an easy-to-read compendium of answers to many questions and blows up some of the canards that have been flying around the ether. Suber is one of the gurus of the open access (OA) movement. His Open Access News blog was for about eight years the place to go each month to find out what was happening in OA publishing, worldwide. Unfortunately, Suber discontinued his valuable service in 2010, but this book summarizes what he learned during that time.

There are basically two approaches to OA. One is the “green” road, which depends on the author of the manuscript to deposit it in an institutional or discipline repository, or less preferably on the author’s Web site, either immediately upon publication or within some prescribed embargo period of perhaps a year. The other is the “gold” road, which is the OA publishing model itself. There are now over 9,000 such journals registered in the Lund University Directory of Open Access Journals ( in Sweden, and the number is growing as even many of the subscription legacy publishers are launching fully OA or hybrid journals.

The green approach is relatively easier to do but suffers from author inertia and a lack of mandates, the general absence or existence of which is a matter of great controversy. According to the Registry of Open Access Repositories at Southampton University ( in the United Kingdom, there are now at least 2,800 formal repositories for authors to deposit their manuscripts in throughout the world, although many authors post or share their works informally online anyway.

The gold approach requires significant effort on the part of a publisher to establish. It also may cost the author a substantial sum to publish an article, despite there being many other creative ways to finance such journals, including consortia, institutional or government subsidies, volunteerism, advertising, or some combination of them. The gold publication model has been slowly but steadily gaining in market share, with perhaps one-quarter of all scholarly journals now published in some OA form.

Suber covers both of these main models in Open Access and has written the book for both the uninitiated and the unconverted. For those who are not well versed in what OA is all about, he describes the elements of the models and the varieties within them in workmanlike fashion. He addresses the scope and the policies, the economic and copyright aspects, and who are the beneficiaries and the casualties. And he concludes the book by looking briefly into the future and providing some self-help references for those willing to take the next step.

However, it is also a book for the undecided. Suber makes a strong argument for the openness of publicly funded research writings throughout the manuscript, and in particular debunks some of the myths about OA.

So, for instance, the real purpose of OA is to provide the broadest possible access and use, not to remove quality, as the antagonists assert. There is not less attention given to peer review than in more established subscription journals. The fact that many subscription journals have a higher citation index frequently is due to their having been in business for a much longer time.

Because many bona fide gold-road journals are funded by author payments, they have been accused of preying on the poor researcher or for taking any money that they can, without an adequate filter. But most subscription journals also have additional charges, and there is no monopoly on greed. Many gold road journals have reduced charges or are free to authors who successfully plead poverty. Furthermore, an author has many different publishing outlets and business models to choose from, so there is no attempt to reduce academic freedom.

OA does not lead to more plagiarism, nor is it a vehicle to relax the rules against it. In fact, the more eyes that can see the work, the less likely it is to be plagiarized successfully. Nor is it a war on copyright or a way to subvert it; it is actually the subscription journal publishers who insist on transferring copyright to them without any payment to the author, thereby capturing the product as well as providing the service.

There is no organized attempt to punish or undermine conventional publishers, to deprive authors of royalty earnings (in the case of books), to boycott certain publishers, or to destroy the whole public research system. What OA does do is shift the cost burdens of scholarly publishing, lower those costs, and take advantage of the attributes of the Internet to make publicly funded research broadly accessible and usable. In summary, Suber dispels the arguments against open publishing of publicly funded research results and makes a cogent case for the new models.

There are a few things that this book does not try to do. It is not a scholarly treatise that looks in depth at the various intricacies of OA activities. There are plenty of those books and articles already. For those interested in starting up an OA journal, it is not a tutorial about how to do that, although it provides a very good background rationale for doing so. Nor is it likely to change the minds of those firmly against OA publishing.

This last point is worth some further observations. On one side are the stakeholders of the ancien regime: the legacy publishers that reap large profits from the public purse, and the professional societies that subsidize their various other member programs with generally more modest income streams from their journals. These stakeholders, especially the commercial publishers that largely cornered the artificial academic publishing market over the past few decades, have a lot to lose from ceding this cash cow.

On the other side are mostly small, upstart publishers; groups of researchers in different disciplines, many in the besieged library community; and individual provocateurs. These groups and individuals are either leading by doing or are tirelessly analyzing and writing about why OA is the better option. Most of them are in the game for the principle, not the money. They are gradually winning the argument with the powers that be—the national legislatures, the research funders, the university administrators, and the public at large—but it is a slow process. Nevertheless, the OA advocates also have their differences and factions favoring green, gold, or some other flavor of OA. The internecine warfare can be as intense as with the legacy publishers.

In short, this can be characterized as mostly a generational and “religious” conflict with vested interests, more akin to a 30-year war than a rational discourse about publishing business models. A single book, such as Suber’s Open Access, will not change such hearts so easily, despite marshaling all the arguments to change some minds.

So, if you are one of those who is uninformed about the OA movement, or just sitting on the fence, you should “steal” this book. It is available freely and openly at Or you may choose to subsidize the work and purchase a paperback copy from MIT Press for about $14.

Cite this Article

Uhlir, Paul F. “Steal This Book.” Issues in Science and Technology 30, no. 3 (Spring 2014).

Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring 2014