Musing about open access publishing and economics-of-abundance and DRM

In a week when the New York Times announced that it was making its digital archives available to all free of charge, I found myself spending time thinking about open access publishing in general, spurred on by this article in the New Scientist.

Initially I could not get over the irony of finding that an article headlined “Information wants to be free” had been placed behind a paywall in the first place. But that’s not the point of this article, so I will let that slide. 

The first thing I did was to look up Wikipedia, something I am wont to do just for the heck of it. Why would I do that? Well, by looking up a word or phrase first in Wikipedia, I seem to be able to establish “baseline” information about the topic quickly and cheaply. In this particular case I had some snatches of memory to do with Stewart Brand originating the phrase ( and Don Marti “inflating” it, according to Doc Searls, as I referred to a few days ago).

So, in case you’re interested, take a look at Information Wants to be Free in Wikipedia. If you haven’t seen it before, then the Stewart Brand quotation is of immense value all by itself, so I reproduce it here:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Reading the New Scientist article also made me try and find out more about the author, Jim Giles, which then led me to his blog.

In the article, Jim highlights some of the dirty tricks being used by some publishers,  of the need for publishers to embrace change, and then writes in detail on a particular change, that of the underlying business model. I quote:

Almost 3000 journals already use the new system: instead of charging people for access to journals, they charge researchers to publish in them. The fees, typically $1000 to $2000 per paper, are usually met by the organisation that funded the research, and several big funders, including the Wellcome Trust, have committed to providing the money their researchers need. The articles are then made available for free online; in other words, they are “open access”.

Judy Breck, while covering the New York Times archive free-up in Smart Mobs, has this to say:

With my interest in education, I have particularly agonized over the fact that because its terrific articles and multimedia creations for science, arts and other subjects have only been free for a few days, they have been walled off from students and from connecting for other educational purposes.

Jim and Judy make some very important points. I am reminded of what the legendary Bill Shankly is meant to have said about soccer:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Information in the right place at the right time saves lives. The web provides us with a path that can connect the people who most need that information with that information. More importantly, the web provides us with an affordable path. It is our duty to ensure that we do not allow that path to be polluted, or made less affordable.

4 thoughts on “Musing about open access publishing and economics-of-abundance and DRM”

  1. “Information in the right place at the right time saves lives.”

    That reminded me of something I heard at a conference in Vancouver earlier this year. Anita Palepu, a doctor and researcher from U of British Columbia held a great presentation there on Open Medicine(, an open access medical journal she co-edits. The decisive point she made was that being informationally deprived can cost lives, especially if you’re a doctor in a developing country. Have a look at Anita’s presentation for a few fairly depressing facts, such as
    – the annual subscription to Brain Research costs 20,000 USD
    – commercial medical publishing is one of the most profitable areas of publishing
    – pharma advertising is a billion dollar industry and conflicts of interest between advertisers and publishers are a constant risk

    Her abstract:


    MP3 Audio of her talk:

    (if you have a bit of time, looking at the slides while listening to the audio is not a bad idea)

  2. I dont think the NYT action is really making it free .. Though I have’nt done enough research the deal smells like the recent one between Wall Street Journal and Google in which the same content is paid for on the WSJ site but is free on Google news !! This happens because Google news pushes Ads along with the content and surely must be paying WSJ a part ..


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