Monday, October 03, 2016

Freeing Information—But How?

Last week I attended a talk by philosopher William "Trey" Brant III on a crisis in the academic publishing world involving either massive data piracy, or a blow for the freedom of information, depending on your point of view.  I was particularly interested in this topic because earlier in the day, I'd found out that the electronic version of one of my books had been "cracked," meaning people could now download it for free. 

The phrase "information wants to be free" was coined by Whole Earth Catalog author Stewart Brand in a conversation with Steve Wozniak in 1984.  Brand was a techno-optimist who participated in one of the first online communities in the San Francisco Bay area, and hoped that computer networks would foster a kind of egalitarian new age of togetherness and sharing.  That was before big money got involved.

As Brant described, and as I have been able to confirm since, the world of academic publishing, specifically scientific and technical papers, is now an exceedingly profitable one.  Here is the way it works.  People who write academic papers are not often great entrepreneurs, although there are exceptions.  They are typically in a situation where they have to publish a certain number of papers a year to keep their jobs—the old "publish or perish" paradigm, which has taken hold in more and more universities and colleges throughout the world.  In the old pre-Internet days, there were only so many journals, because the expense of printing and shipping pieces of paper around was nontrivial, and so the whole enterprise had a kind of natural limit.  The main subscribers to academic journals were either libraries (which had to subscribe to all the big ones) or individual academics (who typically subscribed to only one or two journals that matched their specialized interests).  If you go back far enough, say before World War II, academic publishing of journals was a very small business, not worth the time it would take for any major publisher to fool with. 

But then big money came to the hard sciences, professional organizations grew, and the Internet came along.  Now all you need to set up a journal is a website and connections to some academics willing to edit the thing.  And many of the established journals have now been liberated from the hard-copy page limits and can easily publish 10,000 pages a year—it's just more bits, not more trees.  So it's gotten a lot cheaper to run an academic journal, but it hasn't gotten any cheaper to subscribe.

Publishers such as Elsevier (full disclosure:  my latest technical paper was published through an Elsevier journal) have their profitable cake and get to eat it too.  The academics who write their content send their papers in for free, or in some cases even pay the publishers page charges.  The other academics who review the papers also usually review for free.  And then the publisher gets to charge five-figure subscription fees to the libraries of the same institutions where the papers were generated.  It is indeed good to be an academic publisher these days.  At least until Alexandra Elbakyan came along.

In 2011, Elbakyan was a neurotechnology graduate student in Kazakhstan, dismayed by the charges she had to pay per research article to places like Elsevier unless she was affiliated with a university whose library had a subscription.  (Anybody can get individual articles from these publishers, but unless you have a connection to a research library, they will ask you to pay on the order of $30 US per article.  Academics such as myself are shielded from these costs, which are borne by the libraries.)  So she found a willing hacker or two and started something called Sci-Hub.  According to Dr. Brant, you can find millions of documents on it that you'd otherwise have to pay for, and outside of North America and Northern Europe, especially in Russia and China, nobody fools with the official academic publishers any more.  They just go to Sci-Hub.

This is not a stable situation.  No matter what treaties and agreements say, if Country A harbors some folks who are violating Country B's copyright laws, and Country A doesn't want to cooperate, there's not much that anybody in Country B can do.  If everybody switches to using Sci-Hub, the academic publishers' revenue streams dry up and the whole system collapses.  It hasn't happened yet, but the house of cards is teetering.

The question is, who should pay for academic publishing, and how much is fair to charge for it?  Saying the free market will decide isn't going to work, because we're not talking about a commodity like oil or wheat.  Each academic paper is unique, and anyway, there are studies showing that only two or three other people ever read a typical journal paper anyway.  But if it's not in principle available to everybody, you can't say it's really published, so the availability has to be there.  In a way, academic publishing is a kind of vanity press, but one in which the writers don't typically pay up front.  Recently the concept of open-access publishing has made some headway, in which the author pays a lump sum (typically on the order of $1000 US), and the publisher promises to keep it on the Internet forever.  To my mind, that goes too far the other way, in that your typical English professor at a lowbrow college is not going to have that kind of money, and neither is his department. 

I don't know what the solution is.  Obviously, the peer-review process is still necessary, in which qualified experts pass judgment on what should be published, and it costs something to organize that and put papers in shape to go online.  But I seriously doubt that it costs as much as places like Elsevier are charging.  Maybe the pressure brought to bear by free-access sites such as Sci-Hub will lead to lower prices.  Or some mechanism or international agreement may be found in which people will still have access to information they need, but at a price which reflects something closer to the true cost of the service, and not just whatever the traffic bears.

And as for my book, well, there's something to be said for paper after all. 

Sources:  I thank Trey Brant for bringing my attention to this matter.  I referred to Wikipedia articles on "Information Should Be Free" and "Sci-Hub."  And no, I'm not going to tell you where to find my book for free, or what Sci-Hub's current domain name is.  You have to find those on your own.

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