Thursday, April 06, 2006

Back to nature

Information, in its natural state, flows freely. It spreads to wherever it can go, like water. It grows even in the process. Like the biblical loaves and fishes, which fed thousands and when everyone was satisfied, the remains amounted to more than the original basket full. Substitute 'food for thought' for 'food' in that story, and it doesn't sound so miraculous at all anymore. This is not an argument in favour of open access along the lines of "information wants to be free", since information has no mind of its own and doesn't want anything. Instead, it's just an observation. We have to do almost nothing for information to flow freely. Especially not now the internet enables that flow so easily. We do, however, need to employ all manner of artificial constructs if we want to restrict its flow: legal ones, such as copyright; technological ones, such as authentication procedures; and cultural ones, such as censorship.

For information and knowledge, open access is nature. Unfortunately, the second part of this sentence cannot be reversed and still be true, but that may yet come. Also unfortunate is that considerable amounts of intellectual efforts as well as financial resources are devoted to keeping the constructs needed to restrict information up to the task and enforceable. This is particularly unfortunate in the academic realm, where information and knowledge is primarily generated to be added to the 'noosphere', the knowledge sphere on which the whole world should be able to draw.

The reason why so much effort is being spent on restricting the free flow of information is clear, of course. Validating, organising, and disseminating information and knowledge is costly, is a value added to make the information and knowledge usable and reliable, and needs to be paid for somehow. Restrictions make it possible subsequently to require payment for lifting them.

It is widely understood – and rarely contested – that the tremendous value added by the science publishing industry to organising and providing ways to validate scientific information and knowledge and make it reliable, needs to be paid. However, the question that needs to be asked is, shouldn't the formidable intellectual efforts and resources that are now being spent on maintaining and refining the ancient restriction regime, be better spent on finding new ways to financially support the free flow of information and knowledge, suited to the circumstances of today? Especially since, ironically, that regime was developed centuries ago when copyright was conceived as a way of supporting the technology of its day in order to make the information flow more freely.

Open access is nature. Is it not better to harness and use the forces of nature to our benefit, rather than to fight them?

Jan Velterop

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Of profits and surpluses

The same review by Kate Corby that I referred to in my previous post, reports that "Willinsky makes a strong case for the contention that the aggressively competitive role commercial publishers play in academic publishing has had a negative impact on access for everyone."

What is interesting is that Willinsky (or is it Corby?) inserts the word 'commercial' here, as if not-for-profit publishers, mainly societies, generally support open access and are not 'aggressively competitive'. He doesn't seem aware of the fact that they generally don't and are. He also doesn't seem aware of the fact that a great many society journals are published on their behalf by commercial publishers. And he clearly has never sat in on negotiations between societies and the publishers who publish their journals.

If he had, he would realise that not-for-profit journals do not exist in any numbers. Most so-called not-for-profit journals are expected, by their not-for-profit owners, to make a handsome return (often called ‘surplus’, which is distinct from ‘profit’ only in that it is not taxable), an expectation which is passionately pursued (let's not call it 'aggressively'). Sure, this surplus is mostly being used for good purposes of the society's choosing, but these good purposes seldom have anything to do with the journals themselves or with open access.

There is nothing wrong with surpluses. Or with profits, for that matter. It's the way the free world works. And even the not-so-free world. It would, however, behove scholarly societies to support economically sustainable open access business models for the publication of their journals and make their surpluses that way. For the benefit of science. For the sake of enabling academic researchers to be "in the business of growing the world’s knowledge base", and yet thrive in the cut-throat environment of the 'ego-system' that the global scientific enterprise is, with its relentless 'publish-or-perish' culture. 'Aggressive competitiveness' is all around us, I'm afraid. Or is it 'passionate competitiveness'?

Jan Velterop

Of cost and value

Peter Suber's excellent blog Open Access News drew my attention to Kate Corby's review of John Willinsky's book The Access Principle. She says that "Perhaps the strongest point this book makes is that openly accessible scholarly information is more valuable [than] information published in journals with limited access."

On this point, I couldn't agree more with Willinsky. Yet if his point is valid, why is it that there are still plenty of members of the academic community, including OA advocates, who somehow balk at the idea of willing, OA-conscious publishers charging for the service of open access publishing? Isn't what one is prepared to pay for something an expression of its 'value'? So why is Academia prepared to shell out for subscriptions, but reluctant to pay for the article charges that come with OA publishing? In the aggregate, and in the traditional subscription model, Academia spends an amount far exceeding $3000 for every single article published in established journals. Why not spend that money on publishing all those articles with open access? And get more value to boot? Or is Academia just too anarchic to be sensible about this?

Jan Velterop