Where There Is No Vision, We Publish and Perish

September 8, 2011

In the wake of Aaron Swartz's indictment for downloading a few million articles from JSTOR in an unauthorized manner and Greg Maxwell’s gesture of solidarity – uploading old Royal Society articles no longer covered by copyright to Pirate Bay – JSTOR made a surprise announcement this week that articles they have digitized that are indisputably in the public domain will now be accessible without cost to readers or libraries.

But JSTOR was quick to dampen the celebrations by saying “we’re not going to make a habit of this.” As their FAQ put it:
There are costs associated with selection, digitization, access provision, preservation, and a wide variety of services that are necessary for content to reach those who need it. We have determined that we can sustain free access and meet our preservation obligations for this particular set of content for individuals as part of our overall activities undertaken in pursuit of our mission.

So don’t get too excited, people.

This is a move in the right direction, but it seems to be a move that has had all momentum surgically removed to avoid . . . what, exactly? I don’t really expect JSTOR’s servers to be overwhelmed because reading 1920s PMLA articles goes viral. I can’t imagine any library saying “terrific, we can drop JSTOR now. Who needs the new stuff?” Is it because it’s making their publishing partners baulk? If so, what are the publishers afraid of, losing some hypothetical revenue stream they haven't found yet?

JSTOR is a very cool project that was revolutionary in its day. What happened to the bold thinking that launched the huge task of persuading academic publishers that digitization would help them accomplish their scholarly mission better? Admittedly, it was still an expensive proposition for libraries. It took a tornado, a major loss of bound journals, and an insurance settlement for my library to be able to afford the startup price. But the magic of making that scholarly content come alive through a searchable digital archive - truly amazing in its time - has lost some of its gee-wizardry. What would be transformative today?

I find myself returning to the modest proposal I made after Swartz was indicted for (of all things) wire fraud. Why don’t libraries band together, with the support of academics and their disciplinary societies, and set this stuff free?

In the comment stream following that proposal, a lot of good ideas came out, and it prompted me to do a little digging so I could compare JSTOR's funding with the way Wikipedia’s funding is organized. I added in a comment:

If you compare the 990 forms for Ithaka and Wikimedia Foundation, there are some interesting differences. Ithaka (parent organization of JSTOR) has 211 employees versus Wikimedia's 36 (Wikimedia is the parent of Wikipedia); Ithaka has over 64 million in net assets; Wikimedia has 14.5 million in assets. Wikimedia estimates 100,000 volunteers; Ithaka - zero. The people who donate their time to write and review the content and edit the journals that end up in JSTOR aren't part of the equation. Global impact? I guess you could argue it one way or another, but I know how I'd answer that.

If the actual cost of disseminating scholarly research – not the revenue streams lost if the model changed, but the actual cost of doing it another way – is less than or equal to what we are collectively spending now, then I think we need to figure out if what those current revenue streams support (e.g. society activities, the traditional means of distribution, or whatever the heck we need that money for) are more important than the broad dissemination of research. And of course we’d have to figure out a way to protect the budget dollars libraries are now using to get information to a few instead of to all - and keep the funding flowing.

But it doesn’t seem impossible.

An old King James Bible line just came to me, which happens if you're old enough and were taught by nuns: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Turns out there’s another piece to that proverb that complicates the meaning a bit: “but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (Proverbs, 29:18) It doesn’t sound as classy in the NRSV: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law.”

It seems to me the law we should follow is that old fashioned notion that the truth will set us free, and our job as scholars is to seek the truth and share it as widely as we can. We’re letting self-interest - in furthering our careers, boosting our institutional reputations, and protecting our disciplinary territory – divert us from that fundamental law. And I, for one, am not happy.

It’ll cost money. It’ll take some serious work to hammer out the agreements, just as it took a lot of work for JSTOR to get publishers on board in the first place. But we need to do more for the world than tend our little walled gardens. We can do better. Where's that visionary thinking that started the whole thing?


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