Monday, 14 January 2013

Open Access: It's not free you know - not even a little bit...

The Internet I mean. Yet that's what people persist in believing - and worse that somehow forcing it all to be 'free' (it isn't free by the way) is some kind of righteous moral crusade:

"The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations."

Now let's deconstruct this argument.

Firstly, prior to the arrival of the Internet and digital technologies, that scientific and cultural heritage was found typed onto paper stored as journals, books, monographs and so forth in myriads of libraries across the world. Nothing that MIT has done - or for that matter any of the publishers of academic research - changes this situation. Those books and other source materials are still 'locked up' in libraries and archives. Some of which have public access but most of which don't.

The point of JSTOR and other similar digital archives isn't to wickedly exploit the world's heritage but to ensure that, whatever happens to the current holders of that heritage, it remains available to the world's researchers. And the process of digitizing that heritage isn't cheap but right now is being paid for by the fact that JSTOR is able to recover costs from users (who otherwise might have to trip round the world to view the documents in question unless the holders of those documents were happy to use the well-established 'inter-library loan' system).

The question for all these self-righteous campaigners for "open access" is therefore, who pays? After all there's still a cost to digitizing content - it has to be scanned, key-worded, indexed, abstracted and stored in a searchable and recoverable way. And funnily enough all that work costs a lot of money. Then it has to be made available, promoted, catalogued and the server space paid for. This also costs a lot of money.

If the user isn't going to pay - directly through a per-use fee or indirectly via their institution - then somebody else has to cough up. And the only remaining candidate for stumping up the cash is the government - the taxpayer. So, far from being a liberation, so-called "open access" simply involves handing control of the entire system to the government and the costs to a load of people who have no interest in accessing the information.

So we replace a system where the world's intellectual heritage is largely available when needed to people who want to use it but which costs the taxpayer nothing with a system where everyone - including all those folk who aren't interested - can access but where there's a multi-billion dollar cost to the taxpayer.

This isn't about copyright but about how we pay for things we want - like saving the world's heritage for posterity. And it's much better done without loads of extra cost on the poor old taxpayer don't you think?

Finally, let's remember that seeking - through hacking and illegal downloading - to undermine this process serves nobody. It threatens the work of academic societies, it undermines the librarianship and archiving role of libraries and it means that access can only be sustained if it is the government's wish for that access to be sustained.

However we look at it, Open Access isn't free. Unless of course you steal the books.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure you are using "free" in the right context, here. Most people would agree that a lot of information is freely-available, at a price.

In your context, speech is not free - there is the cost of the phone-call, after all, or the megaphone on the street corner, or the price of a pint. I think that those referring to the internet as "free" is as "unfettered, unregulated, uncontrolled", especially by governments. They are fearful of apparent movements to change that situation.

Radical Rodent