Information Wants To Be Sustainable
NB: On March 18, 2010, Duke's Academic Council voted unanimously to accept our recommendation for an Open Access policy at Duke. My opinion on this, as co-chair of the Digital Futures Task Force, is below and the details of the plan can be found here: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/open-access-scholarly-writing
Next goal: take on commercial publishers who charge exhorbitant fees for their subscriptions, absorbing library budgets and necessitating cutbacks of subscriptions to small journals, literary journals, and university presses! Now, below, my original blog, "Information Wants To Be Sustainable."
I'm an odd choice, come to think of it, to co-chair Duke's Open Access policy, which is to say I'm the perfect choice. I've spent the last decade promoting open source, advocating strongly for Creative Commons licensing (as is all on the HASTAC site), and, at the same time, being hardnosed when people say things like "electronic publishing doesn't cost anything because information is free." (Really? I ask. Maybe if your metric is days, not years or decades or centuries, but platforms can cost lots more to update and maintain than paperbacks. And "free" has a different ring to it, I add, when you are the consumer versus when you are the artist producing. I feel a bit presumptuous telling people who live by their writing that they'll somehow, magically, make more money in the free economy of the Internet, not less. Sometimes that happens. I know all the examples by heart. Sure. But the jury's still out in all cases, and I don't like systems predicated on giving away the fruits of other people's labor.) I would love information to be free; I blog almost every day and no one pays me to do it, and no one requires me to do it. That's fine. But, in many instances, I'm skeptical of free consumption when someone else is paying for the production, and so my rallying cry is something closer to "Information Wants To Be Sustainable."
Fortunately, my co-chair on the Digital Futures Taskforce at Duke is Paolo Mangiafico, an Open Access evangelist in a moderate sort of way, and the faculty and staff on our Digital Futures Task Force range over the whole spectrum of opinions on this issue from the cautiously pragmatic to the passionate, wild-eyed Information-Wants-To-Be-Free-Thinkers. We also have all the shareholders present: faculty from all over the university, staff from the library, from the communications end of campus, from Duke University Press. That range of opinions and perspectives is a good thing in this transitional time. It means we have weighed options very carefully over the last six months. And we are all of us, no matter what our position on free information, aware that there is no crystal ball. No one knows exactly what to expect of the future of publishing. Everyone realizes that, whatever policy we propose, we're likely to need to revise it in three years to address whatever comes next in the digital future.
Good thing, then, that this wise taskforce is proposing a policy to be in place for three years, to be evaluated and assessed, and then to be reconsidered for the next three years, based on how the information landscape has changed by then.
My own idea is that Information Wants to Be Free is about as supportable as the Free Lunch---as in "There's no such thing as a free lunch." By that I mean that, as with the proverbial free lunch, free information is never really cost-free. On the most basic level, there are labor and environmental and opportunity costs--and other costs too--that go along with the inarguable and inestimable benefits of free-flowing information. More than that, anyone who thinks such things as a Google search of the Web is "free," is, to put it bluntly, a fool. Any multibillion dollar global corporation that mines your data even as you supply more and more of it with every search is not supplying you with anything for free, no matter how much you may believe that to be the case. And certainly the laptop or desktop or smart phone from which you are accessing the Web is not free, nor is that monthly data plan. Nor are all the pipes required to sustain that adorable device with all the apps that lives so comfortably in the palm of your hand (and needs to be sync'd to your institutional email and all the rest).
So, given my skepticism about the cost of "free," what does Duke's proposed Open Access policy look like and why am I supporting it so vehemently?
At this writing, we propose that the final draft of any article written by a Duke faculty member--not the printed article but the draft before it goes to press--be made available in pdf form and archived in a repository at Duke where it will be available to search engines and therefore to any searcher, yes, for free. This means that the fruits of our collective research can be made available to the world, even if the actual citational final paginaged publication copyright will still reside with the publisher. With modifications offered by Duke faculty in the various forums and committees to which we've now presented this policy, our Open Access policy is roughly similar to the ones already accepted at Harvard, Stanford, MIT, the University of Kansas, and a number of other public and private institutions. It is both modest in its scope and important. It allows faculty to use their own work in their classes; a member of our Taskforce in the Medical School reported that she was having to pay $500 for permission to use her own published article in her teaching. Recently, I took my class to visit the lab of a colleague and assigned several of his articles, listed on his website. We clicked. No article. The publisher had made him take the links down. My students were able to go through Duke University library to read these scientific papers but, if they had not been institutional members, they would have had to pay-per-view for each article, all of them written on grants that our tax payer dollars had supported. An Open Access repository at Duke also means that the work of faculty can be included in online searches by topic and that readers can find the work easily and read it in the pdf form even if they do not have an individual or institutional subscription to the journal. They will still need to go to the actual journal (the printed final copy of the article) for proper citations, but presumably there are many people who will want to read an essay even if they aren't planning on citing it in their own work.
Faculty members benefit from open access because it allows us to share our work more widely. Some studies of citations suggest that papers previously published in this preprint open access form are more likely to be cited than essays that are not available in this form, even when citation requires taking that extra step of going to the actual published journal to cite the paginated essay. In addition, the policy guarantees the future archiving of the article. So there are many benefits to the faculty member. However, if a faculty member has any hesitation at all about this method of open access archiving for any reason, there is also a "no explanation necessary" escape clause available to any faculty member who wants out. If you don't want your article archived in an open access repository, you don't have to have it archived. No questions ask. If you do, however, you can be assured that Duke will preserve it even if your journal collapses or sells its archives to some expensive commercial vendor.
So there seems to be considerable benefit to the scholar and to readers. Because of the escape clause, there's no real down side that I can see for authors and readers. But here's another reason why I like it: About 80% of journal publishers approve of this policy too. Many already have such policies in their copyright agreements. We've found that the journals most likely to protest tend to be the price-gouging commercial presses like Elsevier that are so devastating to the ecology of scholarly publishing right now.
Information, in the hands of commercial publishers and packages, is both lock-box and expensive to the point of intellectual extortion. One of the visitors to our DFTF told us that, right now, a major institutional library with which she is affiliated spends less than 3% of its annual acquisitions budget on university press publications because of how much is spent on commercial journal packages like those offered by Elsevier. There isn't much left over for scholarly book publishing or even for specialized journal publishing in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. An official at Duke's library said that 3% figure would just about be true here at Duke too and she added that we spend about a million a year on these commrercial journal subscriptions and, eleven miles down the road, UNC spends the same. Sharing isn't allowed. Use is incredibly restricted. My own former Duke students can't even use these journals because the use-agreements are so restrictive. That makes my blood boil. In this amazing Information Age, when so many riches (and garbage too) are available on the Web, that scholarship is tied up in proprietary and highly expensive knots makes me very angry.
At the same time, I edited a journal for a decade and I believe in both journal and scholarly book publishing and I don't want anything to hurt it. I myself happen to write equally for scholarly and for popular audiences. But nearly everything I write for a trade audience is based on extensive reading in the specialized journals of many fields across the sciences (especially neurobiological, cognitive science, and computational science), the full range of qualitative and quantitative social sciences, and the human sciences. We would all live in a far more impoverished intellectual world without the hard work, the peer review, and the careful presentation of scholarship that is, after all, "free," in the sense that it is written without regard for turning a profit. Thank goodness so many scholars believe, in that sense, that their information should be freely available and is worth writing even without direct remuneration.
On the other hand, it costs a lot to produce books and journals and, at most universities, scholarly publishing is already subsidized by the university itself. To take away its very modest sources of revenue (such as radically declining library budgets because of those commercial journals) puts an even greater burden on those universities that do subsidize scholarly publishing--journals and books--for the rest of the world. Here, the adage shouldn't be "information is free." That's inaccurate. It is "information is philanthropy." By which I mean that anyone who reads a scholarly journal or book and who is not contributing to its costs is actually the recipient of a gift that someone else is paying for. It isn't remotely free. In this time of cutbacks all over higher education, that concerns me.
So I am pleased that, even if our proposed Open Access policy isn't quite "free" in the most idealistic and expansive sense of the end-to-end principle championed by Tim Berners-Lee when he envisioned a World Wide Web, in this much-embattled transitional time, it does seem to be sustainable. That is, this highly limited, institution-based Open Access policy seems to be acceptable to journal publishers who understand that (a) the kind of casual browser in scholarly publishing who would be happy reading a pdf instead of the final, finished version of an article is not likely to subscribe to a journal anyway, and the work produced in scholarly journals is of sufficient value that it deserves to have this wider audience; this limited form of open access is a scholarly gift, a public good that higher education can offer as a gift to the general public; and (b) if you are a professional scholar and you need to cite the actual article in your own work, then you are the target subscriber of the journal and, well, at this moment in history, it's part of your professional "share" to subscribe to or be part of an institution that subscribes to the journal in question. That is, if you have a professional need to read and to cite the final, copyedited printed version with pagination, etc., then perhaps paying for the journal (individually, through grants, or institutionally), is, at this historical moment, necessary. You or your institution need to subscribe and presumably you will be remunerated by your institution (salary, benefits, and so forth).
Is that perfect? No way! Does it hurt younger scholars at institutions without library subscriptions to journals to have to pay to see the final printed version of an article for citational purposes? Yes. Is it unfortunate that those teaching at institutions that cannot afford subscriptions do not have a free and open access to all scholarly publications? Yes. Are there many sources of inequality and distress? Yes. Is this limited open access policy an improvement over the lock-box closed-access situation we now have? That answer is also "Yes."
So that's our highly pragmatic Open Access Policy for a transitional time. It is an experiment for three years, so we can see how it works, what its impact is, and if, three years from now, there's a better way, we can change the policy and try something else. It's a little having our cake and eating it too or, more accurately, it's probably more like offering a few crumbs for free (i.e. the work of our own Duke faculty in a pdf preprint version) as an improvement in a highly imperfect and inequitable system.
My own personal wish? I wish that every library that adopted an Open Access Policy such as this one adopted by powerful universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Kansas, and, hopefully, soon, Duke, would also make a pact to boycott all price-gauging commercial journals. Band together and demand more reasonable prices--or start new, free open source journals at a fraction of the cost. Use the saved expense (millions and millions) to support reasonably priced journals in all fields, many of which have been brought to the edge of extinction by dwindling library subscriptions. Or, think really big and think about a NCAA-like consortium where all universities contribute to the common good of scholarly publishing, including the many that do not now support a university press or a scholarly journal. Collectively, such an association might provide an endowment for all non-profit journal and book publishing in all fields. If small presses and scholarly publishers had some stable base, it would then be possible to make information truly free, not just to a university's own institutional members but to the world. This would only work, though, with an endowment that covered the costs of scholarly publishing--free going in, free coming out to the world. Not enforced philanthropy. Not invisible subsidy by already-overburdened presses and universities that are currently subsidizing, indirectly, for-profit publishing as well as those institutions that do not themselves support the enterprise of not-for-profit scholarly publishing. If there was a public trust for supporting non-profit scholarship, you wouldn't need subscriptions; scholarly books could be published on the web and freely available. Then information could be truly free, start to finish, not like the current system, costly for the producers and frustrated for would-be consumers. Information really does want to be free, but that applies to the whole process not just to the end product. We haven't yet figured out how that might work, but it would be an interesting project in this transitional history of scholarly publishing.
Will there ever be such a "scholarly public goods endowment" that would allow true open access to the fruits of academic labors? Again, probably not. But it is something we need to consider on the way towards my personal battlecry: "Information Wants To Be Sustainable."