Let’s talk about this “Free” price tag

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So, I’m teaching this course on the rather absurdly broad topic of books and culture in which we explore personal reading tastes and experiences, dabble in the history of books and libraries, learn a bit about the book industry, and try our hand at book design and other approaches to thinking about books. It’s not that easy to discuss the book industry (or, more properly, industries – trade book publishing doesn’t work the same way as scholarly, K12, or higher ed textbook publishing) with students who are 18 or 19 years old and don’t have a big stake in it. It’s all pretty new to them, but they know what they don’t know.

What can be harder to anticipate are the blind spots in people who read lots of books, deal with scholarly texts daily, participate in publishing as authors, editors, and reviewers, and depend on the infrastructure of publishing for their daily work. But blind spots there are. Giant ones.

Before I left for work this morning, I spent a little time responding to Joshua Kim’s post about how libraries might be supported to provide the kind of digital book content he consumes voraciously. (I can’t read as fast as he writes! I’m posts behind.) It turned out to be a long comment, because it’s hard to convey just how convoluted the book industry is as it moves into digital publishing. Publishers are taking different approaches, they have a testy relationship with Amazon, who has made it all look so easy, and it’s impossible for libraries to make it simpler because the platforms are all different and many publishers simply won’t provide digital content to libraries at all. It turned out that it’s easier to talk about this stuff with my students because they have so little experience. Just over half of them have never bought an ebook or downloaded an audio book. They don’t wonder why libraries can’t make it as simple as Amazon does. They haven’t yet had their expectations defined by the digital retail environment. They don’t know what they’re missing, or what libraries are missing.

I love Joshua’s questions. He doesn’t make assumptions of failure when things don’t make sense. I only find it a bit frustrating that the current situation is so fractured and confused that it’s really hard to explain – and that libraries have so little power to fulfill their missions in this new era. I have high hopes for the open access movement, and can foresee a day when libraries and scholars have worked out ways to make more information free to anyone who wants to read it and has an Internet connection. But trade publishing operates with an entirely different set of rewards and assumptions, and finding ways to make digital books as accessible to the public as printed ones is a big challenge made more exasperating because it’s so counterintuitive.

I felt differently about Rob Weir’s essay in which he castigates supporters of Aaron Swartz and proponents of open access scholarship for believing that published research should available to as many people as possible with as few barriers as possible. He makes a number of curious arguments that at best oversimplify issues and at worst are simply wrong. Among these claims: “hacking is a form of theft,” violating terms of service to download massive numbers of JSTOR articles is not morally or legally different than using computer skills to empty people’s bank accounts, and supporters of open access to scholarship are as deluded and selfish as kids who think they should be able to get any music they want for free. Open access to research, he thinks, is “as likely as the discovery of unicorns grazing on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

(As an aside, the thing about his essay that bothers me the most has nothing to do with publishing, but with rather with his cavalier belief that anyone charged with a crime should quit whining and accept a plea deal of a few months in prison rather than risk a 35-year sentence. A court system that uses plea deals as sticks to keep people out of courtrooms and away from juries of peers is unjust. Saying that Aaron Swartz should “do the time” – forgoing his day in court that involved an excessively risky calculus – is cynical or just careless, take your pick. But I digress.)

Weir (whose work I often find cogent and persuasive) thinks on the basis of his experience with a scholarly journal that open access is either a fantasy or a scam. He hasn’t been paying attention. But then, a great many scholars who have access to good libraries and know how to get their stuff published haven’t been paying attention. This is a shame, because the system they count on no longer works for most people. Libraries can’t paper over the holes in the system any longer. Small journals are being acquired by big corporations daily. Scholars who hand over the rights to knowledge so they can be published and libraries who license or purchase temporary access to one article at a time to satisfy their “customers” are betraying all the people who don’t have access – and future scholarship, which will depend on a scholarly record turned into corporate intellectual property.

Nobody who knows anything about open access thinks publishing is or should be without cost. But let’s think about Weir’s suggestion that “the way forward in the Age of Information begins with an honest assessment of the hidden costs within the culture of free.”

Libraries collectively spend billions footing the bill for local access to scholarship. If they started charging for use, each student would owe hundreds of dollars a semester for the right to read articles or check out books. Departments would have to round up tens of thousands of dollars annually to pay for the databases they depend on. And everyone who wants to use the library building would be charged rent for whatever it costs per square foot to pay for the lights, heating, and other building costs. Oh, and let’s throw in a restocking fee for each borrowed book. Shelvers have to get paid, after all.

Of course, journal publishers would also be receiving new bills. Authors who make an “honest assessment of the hidden costs” of free would submit invoices to cover the hours they spent on research. Reviewers would bill by the hour. Institutions would, in turn, charge their faculty for hours they spent on research activities, plus an infrastructure charge for office, lab, and library space. We’d all have to hire accountants to keep the books straight.

Or we could figure out how to do what we do a bit differently, at least some of the time, so that more people have access to the research we currently pour so much time and money into. We could find ways to take the investments we make – those hidden costs lodged in library budgets, for example – and free a portion of scholarship by funding platforms for toll-free publishing. While we’re at it, we should talk about how we let the idea of “productivity” corrupt our idea of what we’re doing when we do research and rediscover why knowledge is a communal effort, not a personal merit badge to be exchanged for job security and funding.

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