September 10, 2003

"Closing of the Intellectual Commons"?

Online access to journals, ebooks, and databases is a wonderful thing. But the terms of subscription to these resources often stipulate that access to the collections remain "protected" from anyone outside the subscribing institution. Since many libraries cannot afford to subscribe to both the electronic and the print versions of a journal, the move toward online versions is undermining the principle that members of the public should have access to the collections at publicly-funded colleges and universities.

Alex Pang reports on this Scientific American piece entitled "Public Not Welcome":

In June the journal shelves at the Health Sciences Library of the University of Pittsburgh began showing holes. Where current issues of Leukemia Research were once stacked, now stands a small cardboard sign: 'Issues for 2003 are available only in electronic form.' The cardboard tents have replaced print copies of hundreds of journals.... And at the library's computer terminals, where employees and students of the university can tap into the fast-growing digital collections, other signs advise that 'You need an HSL Online password to use these computers.' Restrictions in the contracts the university has signed with publishers prohibit librarians from issuing passwords to the public....

[O]rdinary citizens have for decades enjoyed free access to the latest scientific and medical literature, so long as they could make their way to a state-funded university library. That is rapidly changing as public research libraries, squeezed between state budget cuts and a decade of rampant inflation in journal prices, drop printed journals in droves. The online versions that remain are often beyond the reach of 'unaffiliated' visitors....

While libraries have always had "to make tradeoffs between different subscriptions," Alex writes, the move to password-only access sounds like "another example of the systematic closing of the intellectual commons that Larry Lessig and others have so rightly been worried about." He continues:

But just what is it that publishers think they're protecting? Do they think that members of the general public could constitute a potential new revenue stream that can be tapped if only free public access to journals is eliminated? Were they thinking, 'Gee, I would spend $9,000 a year for a subscription to Letters in Neuroscience, but since I can read it for free, I won't'? And now they will?

The more I think about it, the more this strikes me as something that started as overprotectiveness of one's IP, but collapses into something that's just mean-spirited.

Perhaps the publishers have in mind a scenario where millions of people are logging into and downloading from the collections from home (which option is generally available to students, faculty and staff whose libraries subscribe to online materials). An unlikely scenario (most nonspecialists are not going to spend time perusing the pages of Letters in Neuroscience), but I guess I can see why publishers would balk at the idea that their collections circulate so freely that the material becomes google-cached. Still, I think it's important to remember that the public is paying for the library subscriptions at publicly-funded institutions. And though the vast majority of the public will rarely if ever want to make use of these collections, I believe they should have the option if they so desire. At the very least, what about a compromise clause which goes something like this: When a member of the public makes a visit to a state-funded university library, that person can obtain a temporary password to use the resources from a computer terminal that is physically located within the library?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 10, 2003 09:34 AM

Usually, terminals physically in the library have access to everything the library has bought, no passwords necessary. Either they do it by IP blocks or the library does some magic access voodoo on its end.

I agree with you, though. This basically sucks. I love love love having full-text stuff online, but not at this price.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 10, 2003 09:48 AM

Another issue is the accessibility of high quality documentaries. Many have a price tag of $200.00 or more for individuals or institutions! You can rent these documentaries for a "lesser fee" of $75.00, or wait until P.O.V. on PBS decides to rerun a program and you can tape it yourself. I understand that many independent filmmakers are financially dependent on their productions, but the issue of access is critical.

Posted by: Cat at September 10, 2003 10:57 AM

I recall taking some research to NYC one time while visiting family, and being denied access to the NYU and Columbia libraries because I did not have a student ID. Is it only public university libraries that have open access to the community?

I've never needed a university ID/password to use a library computer once I've gained access to the university, however. That is puzzling - I suppose the motive is not to deny access to journals to the public, but to prevent the terminals from being occupied non-university internet surfers?

Posted by: Matilde at September 10, 2003 12:05 PM

Maybe -- but most database systems I've encountered were dedicated to the journals, etc. they used -- they had no net access.

I haven't run across the password issue; the most annoying variant I've encountered is being unable to access J-STOR from off campus, even if I'm allowed to use it on campus as faculty or student. There, a password option would be nice.

Posted by: Rana at September 10, 2003 12:23 PM

Rana, you might be able to set up your browser to use a campus proxy for websites that require a password; you would need to provide a password for your institution when you went to JSTOR or similar sites, but you'd be able to use them with a non-campus connection.

Posted by: ben wolfson at September 10, 2003 03:49 PM

For the general public paying for the publications in public institutions,one can argue that they get only access to public institution libraries, and not necessary all its facilities.

Say there exist in a community 2 people x and y,where x is a student and y is just a member of the community. y supports the instititon indirectly through taxes. x supports the institions indirectly through taxes and directly through school fees. Thus given some resource in the public institution, it will not be unfair to say that x enjoys more of the resource than y. Thus simply because part of the public institution is supported by the general public, that does not necessary mean that they get to enjoy all of its benefits.

Paying students should have priority to access library terminals,databases,etc over the general public. Really frustrating when you cant do research on your report because the "member of the public" is surfing the web at a university computer.

Posted by: Passing_through at September 10, 2003 04:30 PM

What are the economics of journal publication? I'm under the understanding that they almost all lose money (except maybe the ones which charge money to read subissions). If so, it seems that paperless publication would lose less money and perhaps be given away free without costing more than the present system. Granted that Journals and libraries both are suffering the big financial crunch, throwing away money on mailing and printing, just in order to deliver articles a year or so **slower** than you could deliver them electronically, sounds like a big loser.

The advantages of journals include editing, screening and validating articles, and archiving them in libraries. The first two advantages can be matched electronically. I agree that having hard copies archived is necessary, but this can be done with print-at-demad technology (you'd just have to e-publish in specific printable formats).

My guess is that people working in the same field shoot articles back and forth already, so that by the time the journal comes in the mail the most interested readers have already seen it.

Posted by: zizka at September 10, 2003 04:31 PM

zizka - More than shoot them back and forth; I could swear I saw, just the other day, a ?RSS? citation index in which one could publish various categories of one's own reading and writing, and subscribe to others', so that you knew when Prof Cool had a new draft and had already had a chance to read what he had been reading. The opportunities for teaching and disinformation are symmetrically vast.

Someone linked from here was using it, I think...

Posted by: clew at September 10, 2003 05:08 PM

Zizka, you might be interested in what the Open Access people are doing. Peter Suber is a big name there. I recommend his weblog: Open Access News.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 10, 2003 05:49 PM

Thanks, Dorothea. I knew something like that had to be out there.

Posted by: zizka at September 11, 2003 01:35 AM

I found a claim on the site claiming that e-journals are cheaper by a 100-1 ratio. Presumably that's delivery cost (exclusive of editing, formatting, etc.) But since typesetting is done electronically now anyway, the difference we're talking about is between a.) loading an edited disc onto a site, and b.) sending it to the printer, waiting, and then mailing out the journals.

Posted by: zizka at September 11, 2003 10:00 AM

Such claims are overstated, by quite a lot. They tend not to include ongoing bandwidth and server costs, to begin with, and they NEVER consider that print journals just don't go e-only. Adding an electronic edition to an existing print one is ADDING costs, not subtracting them.

There is also a serious problem with underestimating the digital divide, especially in the third world.

I'm all for e-text, but I'm also all for realism. :)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 11, 2003 11:36 AM

I am actually proposing that journals go e-only in some sort of efficient print-on-demand format. People who want bound copies could go to a copy center able to do that.

I don't know what the bandwidth and server costs would be. Based with my experience with my own commercially-hosted site, bandwidth cost would seem fairly nominal except for the very few highly popular journals and a few odd articles that get a weird buzz (e.g. in the medical field). I'm really thinking of the more specialized, limited-interest stuff.

I can actually see some dead tree journals staying that way for prestige purposes, sort of like the Swiss Guards with their useless (except for killing one another) weapons.

Presumably online scholars have already started playing google reciprocal linking games. I wonder if anyone is putting in invisible "Britney Spears Nude" text yet to get more hits on their medieval research.

Posted by: zizka at September 11, 2003 12:47 PM

I'm also dubious about claims of high bandwidth/server costs for text. Compared to high-resolution presses, it should be cheap, esp. since techies aren't nearly as expensive as we were four years ago.

Anyhow, mirroring and caching are well-understood and a plausible job for local institutions (all the netnews distribution arguments can go into reruns).

I don't see the force of the 'digital divide' argument either - it looks as though two scientific journal subscriptions cost as much as a workhorse black-&-white printer, and with the latter you don't have to pay shipping for articles your department isn't even vaguely interested in. If bandwidth is viciously expensive, then you have to subscribe by CD, but if you can't get mail you couldn't get paper journals anyway. I must be missing something. Examples, Dorothea?

Posted by: clew at September 11, 2003 01:53 PM

What's text? HTML or PDF? The former is orders of magnitude cheaper in bandwidth, but how many e-journals care?

And there's still a base cost for the journal producer in server hardware and administration -- and these things are hard to outsource without signing over your journal's soul to one of the big boys. Journal production is, like, COMPLETELY outsourced these days; nobody wants to hire the staff!

As for digital divide, Clew just made my point for me very neatly. What you say is true if you live in the First World. If you don't, do you even *have* bandwidth? If you do, can you use it on library access? Can you get funding for access servers? You *sure* can't get funding for POD.

That said, it's easier to build an electronic information-delivery infrastructure than a paper one in places where the paper one doesn't exist already -- not infrequently, such places are bloody hard to access physically to begin with!

Eh. This is a big issue. So happens I'll be discussing it in my virtual-collections class shortly. Maybe I'll have something more coherent to say then.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 11, 2003 02:39 PM

If e-journal publication succeeds in killing off the execrable, loathesome, detestable, and impious PDF format entirely, that would be an adequate reason to go ahead with it.

To me the digital-divide argument is weak. I doubt that there are many people anywhere without internet access who have access to a significant range of $50 -- $150 / year journals. My third world country is Mongolia and as I understand they're reasonably well wired. It would definitely be easier to get used Pentium II's out to the boonies than a usable research library.

I get 50 meg commercially for $10/ month. Larger storage would be considerably cheaper per meg; owning your own hardware would be cheaper yet. My bet is that 10-20 years of a quarterly could be stored for that cost, possibly much more. I don't get a lot of hits (~150/day) but most articles won't. (One advantage/disadvantage of an electronic system, would be to make it possible for authors to see if anyone is reading their stuff. I'm not sure that all authors want to know.)

Posted by: zizka at September 11, 2003 02:55 PM

Actually the bandwidth and server costs are not as big as one might think. 2 reasons.

1st: Most journals,at least the major ones,already have a web presence. Thus they already hire people, paid for bandwidth, servers, etc. True, putting e-docs online will increase these costs, but only marginally. Most of the expences are sunk. Besides, pdf,HTML,ps,etc are not as big as say large software programs or datasets, and some universities already hosts these for free. Storage space isnt as expensive as it use to be.

2nd: Most journals already catalogue and store their papers electronically. Thus regardless of how they deliver their material, either through e-docs or text, they still have to have this stuff on disk somewhere. Delivering in electronic medium is not as complex as if say all their papers are currently sitting in a box in a basement.

On the third world affordability,I am not sure traditional text-base publications are any much cheaper. Universities usually only purchase 1 or 2 copies of journals. People have to use the xerox machines to make a usable copy for themselves anyway and this is very expensive. A network pc with shared printer on the other hand can be used for lots of other stuff. Reading e-journals and printing out what is needed might turn out to be less expensive.

(Yes. Some 3rd world countries are really poor and cannot afford electricity. These places wont have any use for journls anyway. 3rd world places that do read this stuff proberbly alrady have computers, albit not very good ones.
poor != backward)


Posted by: Passing_through at September 11, 2003 03:11 PM

I've done a little work on the ground getting electronic access to a medium-poor Central American parish, and I still think CD subscriptions and a printer would be their most cost-effective choice. The *cheapest* thing is for some richer body to decide what they want and send it to them in print, slow boat; but assuming the poor themselves get to look at the options and choose, they need to be on something like a CD subscription to an index, and a very low bandwidth system for them to request full text from the library service - we are, at this point, maybe at the slow-boat-out, pager-reply level of communication - and then it depends on what's expensive about the post & the power supplies to decide whether the printing gets done at the rich or the poor end. Depends how much they want. Also, of course, the more technology we can get running in the undersupplied schools, the more they can figure out how to apply it to their own problems.

Or ours.

So I still don't see what you think I've proved, Dorothea. Maybe I should summarize my argument; first that the *technical* expenses of running a server are very low, *in the rich countries*; second that the bandwidth to the clients¹ in poor countries can be trimmed really hard, esp. if they want to stay in touch with the breadth of what's published, at the cost of getting to read it right away.

As one hops node to node away from the rich backbone, servers presumably store less and less rarely-accessed stuff. I expect the library at Lvov in 1920 was narrow, but Banach was deep.

¹'Thin client', now open for exegesis.

Posted by: clew at September 11, 2003 05:19 PM

I doubt if the economics of these journals will be sustainable in the future. A $9000 subscription might be justified in the paper world due to the pro-rating of costs across a small base. In the on-line world, the production costs are relatively low. Straw man: why is "Journal of Neurology," if produced in an on-line format, any more expensive to produce than a high-quality blog? Most of the value-added comes from the peer review process--peer reviewers aren't paid, are they?

Am I missing anything here?

Posted by: David Foster at September 11, 2003 09:19 PM

I'm guessing, but my guess is that the Journal of Neurology is a money-maker, and is so because big-bucks biotech and medical research wants that stuff. The journals I've been thinking of are in Chinese philosophy, Central Asian history, and other liberal-arts-bum type areas.

Posted by: zizka at September 11, 2003 09:44 PM

It might be cheap to get a load of Pentium IIs to Mongolia, but unlike paper journals, the PIIs will have to be upgraded in a couple of years to something equivalently out-of-date. And unlike print journals, many times e-journals host their archives at a central server, so you lose access if you stop subscribing. You are much more locked in to a payment cycle with e-journals than you are with print journals.

Posted by: E. Naeher at September 15, 2003 09:25 AM

Passing_through writes:

"Say there exist in a community 2 people x and y,where x is a student and y is just a member of the community. y supports the instititon indirectly through taxes. x supports the institions indirectly through taxes and directly through school fees. Thus given some resource in the public institution, it will not be unfair to say that x enjoys more of the resource than y."

I don't think it's justifiable to be spending tax money on something that is not equally available to everyone in the first place. Yes, there are positive externalities (theoretically -- I'm dubious) to an educated populace, but, as someone who pays taxes to fund state universities but could never afford to attend one, I think the loss of income through taxes combined with the fact that my tax dollars are actually reducing my employability (by increasing the employability of the competition) trumps those externalities. Publically-funded cultural/intellectual institutions should either be free to everyone or they should not exist.

Posted by: E. Naeher at September 15, 2003 09:36 AM

In what I wrote I was primarily writing about specialized, underfunded, low-circulation, money-losing journals -- which I think is most of them, numerically. My point is that they could probably go electronic, give it away free, and lose less money.

My guess is that it's still easier to set up Mongolia with terminals (which are multi-purpose and have many other uses) than to buy them subscriptions to the hundreds of journals a decent university needs to have.

Publically-funded universities -- no university is completely publically-funded. They answer to many constitunecies, but public funding tends to keep tuition down. And every action of government benefits some more than others.

Posted by: zizka at September 15, 2003 10:20 AM

Well, one thing that *ought* to be clarified in electronic subscriptions is whether you're buying rights to a copy of year X's data: access to a server for year X: both: something else I haven't thought of. "Both" seems good to me, with maybe a annual CD copy coming in slow mail.

And the terminals are useful for other things: querying the Appropriate Technology databases (also available on CD), cheap communication between poor countries on problems particular to them, direct information on the commodities markets, letters back to the hamlet from a diaspora of foreign workers, honeypot to attract tourists. Hardware doesn't need to be updated nearly as often for text as for First World amusement-driven uses; it does break down in the tropics with terrifying speed, but India and China both have smart people working on the problem.

This is still sort of attached to the thread topic, if I may tie it to the morality and utility of public access to information.

Posted by: clew at September 15, 2003 03:06 PM

"Publically-funded cultural/intellectual institutions should either be free to everyone or they should not exist." -- E. Naeher

Well thats not a practical standpoint. Children with say special needs may need more individual attention or smaller class sizes, things which are not avaliable to all children, hence not "free to everyone". Does that mean we wont allow public funds to go towards them, that they "should not exist"? I would hope not. Similarly, some people dont have kids, but part of their tax dollars go towards paying for high schools. Such high schools are thus "not free" to them. Should we shut down all high schools since not everybody gets to enjoy them?


Posted by: Passing_through at September 15, 2003 07:04 PM

The point, I think, is that anyone with special needs can take advantage of these programs, whereas anyone who wants to go to college may not do so.

I am not a big fan of redistribution of wealth in any of its myriad forms, but it's especially egregious when, as in this case, the wealth is being distributed largely to the middle and upper-middle classes, and the lower classes are being forced to subsidize that. It's one thing to have my money used to help people who are worse off than me; it's another thing to take my tax dollars and give them to people who drive daddy's hand-me-down Beemer (and there are plenty of these people at state schools).

To get somewhat back on-topic: this is why I don't feel guilty about allowing my friend, who is a state university student, to supply me with her student ID and the other information necessary to access the various electronic journals and databases to which her school subscribes.

Posted by: E. Naeher at September 16, 2003 09:48 AM

I agree about open access to libraries and transfers from the rich to the poor, but the overall libertarian argument against against anything that benefits any one individual more than other individuals makes governbment impossible.

Posted by: zizka at September 16, 2003 11:25 AM