Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Jason Schmitt (center) films an interview for Paywall, his documentary on scientific publishing and the open-access movement.

Jason Schmitt

Documentary puts lens on the open-access movement upending scientific publishing

Jason Schmitt was working at Atlantic Records when the online site Napster disrupted the music industry by making copyrighted songs freely available. Now, the communications and media researcher at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, is pushing for a similar disruption of academic publishing with Paywall, a documentary about the open-access movement that debuts today in a Washington, D.C., theater. “I don’t think that it’s right that for-profit publishers can make 35%–40% profit margins. The content is provided for them for free by academics,” Schmitt, who produced the film, says.

The documentary explores the impact of Sci-Hub, a website that provides pirated versions of paywalled papers for free online, and interviews academics and publishing figures. Schmitt says many large publishers refused to go on camera—although representatives from Science and Nature did—and he is not impressed that several have begun publishing some open-access journals. “Elsevier is as much to open access as McDonald's fast food is to healthy,” he says.

Schmitt predicts that all but a few high-quality journals will be free in a decade. He adds that because the United States has so many universities and colleges negotiating separately with publishers, the country is slowing the open-access movement. Earlier this week, a coalition of European funders announced a plan to require open-access publication of its grantees.

Some 120 universities worldwide have already agreed to screen Paywall; it can be streamed for free on the internet as well. “We definitely didn’t have a glorious documentary budget, and I didn’t get compensated at any point,” Schmitt says.

Editor’s note: John Bohannon, a former contributing correspondent for Science, was a consultant on the project.