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Collision Course: RWA versus Knowledge
January 12, 2012 - 8:13pm

Last week, two things were peppering my Twitter stream – posts about digital humanities from scholars attending the Modern Language Association and American Historical Association annual conferences mingled with expressions of concern and outrage over the  introduction of the Research Works Act, a bill supported by the publishing association to which both associations belong. It just dawned on me (duh) that these two issues are a perfect demonstration of the collision course we’re on.

The Research Works Act (RWA) would make it illegal for taxpayers who spend billions to fund basic research to insist that final findings of that research must be made public. Apologists for the bill say what they’ve said for years: there is no problem that open access will solve. Want to get your hands on research? Just go to the library, stupid! Even public libraries can get you access to more articles than you can shake a stick at! It’s bad enough having to put up with the counter-factual and anti-rational baloney politicians spout during this silly season, but having an organization that speaks for scholarly and scientific publishers state an untruth with such deadpan earnestness really stinks. Equally frustrating is the silly claim that it is publishers who provide peer review, and that there is no alternative to having corporations like Elsevier manage this important work, for which its profits deserve protection from the public interest.

The RWA is all about ensuring that the intellectual work of scholars and scientists will be protected as corporate property (hence the "regulatory interference" versus "private-sector" language.) Publishers control access to research in large part because they and the volunteer labor they harness have pretty much cornered the market on prestige and the imprimatur of quality (even though many high-quality open access journals do a fine job of quality publishing, peer review and all, and Elsevier was caught publishing fake journals). Publishers supporting the RWA argue the only way to properly vet new ideas is to have them pass into the capable hands of publishers, who will then charge scholars for access, either through libraries or by the piece. Ideas, trapped in their copyrighted expression like insects in amber, should forever remain under the control of the publisher as their rightful property.

Traditional scholarship didn’t work that way. Newton did not have to pay for permission to stand on the shoulders of giants. Yet scholars who climbed on others’ shoulders have long trusted that publishers support the sharing of research results. What we see now, though, is that publishers want to limit the sharing of knowledge, because their model depends on purchase, not sharing.

In a digital environment, copyright holders can impose more locks on their content than they could in the print past. Cory Doctorow has published a harrowing picture of where we are headed as apps and content are designed to defeat sharing, remixing, making, hacking, or standing on shoulders without pre-paid authorization. Traditional scholars have been able to retain their faith in publishers because their remixing and searching has been small scale and lends itself to metaphorical connections signaled through footnotes. Once the trail is laid down, other scholars presumably can follow it. The referents – books and articles – existed independently and were recoverable by anyone who had access to a good library or could travel to the archive where Box 315 was stored.

Today, though it seems much more convenient to get access to far more books and articles, they are not as independent as they once were. They remain under the control of publishers, who can change or remove all instances from circulation – and who will fight tooth and nail to control circulation itself.

Digital humanities is not so different than traditional humanities, except that it enables analysis of lots of data much more easily and is practiced by scholars more interested in sharing information than in creating elaborate gates to restrict how culture is defined and who gets to participate. Historians have long drawn conclusions from large numbers of public documents, but now the data can be mined more quickly and with greater sophistication. The networked nature of knowledge is more apparent than ever, just as publishers have decided they must control network access and shut down "unauthorized" freedom.  

Perhaps it’s because I've been reading David Weinberger’s new book, Too Big to Know, but it seems completely impossible today to create a gateway through which truth must pass - and hand the keys to publishers. Knowledge is too interconnected, too fizzy, too dynamic to be limited to artifacts and processes that were designed around the limits of paper and the notion of finite and finished compendia maintained by gatekeepers.The RWA is a law that would forbid networking the findings of publicly funded research through public channels. But knowledge itself is a public network, one that will continually grow new nodes and branches, one that is collaborative by nature and liable to take off in unexpected directions. Humanists and scientists alike get the social nature of knowledge and the ways that sharing is intrinsic to discovery. The RWA assumes things won't change - not if publishers can help it.

They might as well outlaw the tides.

For more on the RWA, see John Dupuis's round-up of commentary and be sure to read Andy Woodworth's Concerned Librarian's Guide - with a handy color-coded map of the ALA Midwinter conference hall indicating publishers and vendors that support RWA and the also-odious SOPA and other counter-sharing initiatives.



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