August 28, 2007

Conversing about Open Access

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Open Access,Tech — Biella @ 3:18 am

Karl Fogel’s recent comment asking why Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter did not publish Decoding Liberation with some sort of open licenses, especially since they are such unabashed advocates of open licensing, spurred a flurry of further comments from the authors on my blog as well as some more thought out blog posts and commentary.

I don’t have too much to add except perhaps to state the obvious: the economics of book publishing and software are quite distinct creatures. When it comes to software, one can pull in revenue from support and services, while this is pretty much impossible for most books. Software also has a much shorter shelf life, which is why making it open access, fast, is key.

Books however have a longer shelf life, which is why I am personally not opposed to some sort of limited copyright for books (around 5 years, give or take a couple) so that publishers can recoup their costs (and in academic publishing, no one is making a bundle of money, that is sure) but then it should be made free to the world, never to die that awful death of “out of print” (in so far as it can be thrown on the web, legally).

Journal publishing is another matter and I firmly believe that articles should spread far and wide and quick because of their shorter shelf life, which tends to be shorter mostly because there are just so many articles… As Alex Golub has informed us, my own professional association has really failed not only in providing more open access journals, they are not even allowing the members of the organization any say in the matter.

But thankfully other disciplines and academics are taking open access and the possibilities afforded by new media a little more seriously and here is an edited volume by CT Watch Quarterly The Coming Revolution in Scholarly Communications & Cyberinfrastructure that provides an important node in what is an important conversation.


  1. I think there’s a positive feedback aspect often overlooked here:

    Even if I could afford the $90 for Chopra and Dexter’s book, it is still less valuable to me than it might otherwise be because I know that others cannot afford it. That is, a big part of the value of a text is its accessibility to other readers. When I read a good book, I’m making an investment: I’ll want to talk about it with others, maybe write blog comments on it, etc.

    But I’d be less motivated to do that if I were be pretty sure that most other people I know wouldn’t read the book (either before or after my recommendations and comments). This is not just a matter of the $90 price tag. Even if the book were $5, it still wouldn’t be available online. Why would I bother to blog about something I can’t link to? (Yes, of course there might still be reasons to comment on it, but my point is that the motivation diminishes as access diminishes.)

    It’s not just my access to the book that makes me want to invest my time into it; it’s everyone else’s access that makes the investment worthwhile. Take away those dynamics, and you’ve taken away a good part of the value of the book to any given reader, IMHO.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — August 28, 2007 @ 8:56 am

  2. By the way, Biella, I’m not sure it’s true that software has a shorter shelf life than books.

    My text editing program has been around for more than twenty years; I’ve been using it for at least sixteen of those. CVS is still in use today and it is twenty years old. I’m sure you can think of many other programs of a similar age. They’ve been maintained to different degrees, but they’re still recognizably the same programs they were when they started.

    How many academic books will have a similar useful lifespan, especially books about rapidly-changing fields?

    Comment by Karl Fogel — August 28, 2007 @ 9:01 am

  3. Karl,

    I’m getting lost now. You wouldn’t bother discussing any books that are not available online? Surely you must spend *some* time offline? I discuss lots of books – that are not online – with lots of folks (seems to me that thats what graduate school was all about). I blog about lots of things I can’t link to (I often blog on cricket, and sometimes I’m talking about games played in the past or just discussing player form. I can’t link to these things, can I? Most times I can link to online scorecards, but often I don’t need to. People’s memories are enough. You are suggesting that reading a good book is inseparable from the social activity of wanting to talk about it, discussing it with others. But plenty of people read good books without any of this in mind. When I read “Native Son”, I read it without wondering if I was going to be able to discuss it with anyone. I just read it because I knew the story sounded like it would resonate with me.

    Comment by Samir Chopra — August 29, 2007 @ 1:30 pm

  4. Karl, one little misunderstanding from me above: I see you were referring to the business of not being able to discuss a book if you knew it wouldn’t be generally accessible. My graduate school example obviously concerned books that were available to all.

    Comment by Samir Chopra Chopra — August 29, 2007 @ 3:39 pm

  5. Peter Suber, director of the Open Access Project, has just written some his thoughts on the question of open access to monographs (in contrast to journals), and also recounted a tale of particular relevance of us.

    Comment by Samir Choprara Chopra — August 31, 2007 @ 6:59 am

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