August 31, 2007

OA for Books vs Journals

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Open Access,Tech — Biella @ 7:24 am

Peter Suber provides a nice summary of the debatesaround Open Access for books vs. journals.

The debate started when Karl Fogel posted a comment on my blog asking about the licensing terms for the recently released Decoding Liberation. Tonight Karl, Scott, and Samir will meet for the first time at my house. I imagine the conversation will continue to be lively!


  1. Looking forward to tonight!

    Peter Suber’s comments all make sense. But I continue to be struck by how deeply certain assumptions about publishing are embedded in our worldview. For example:

    “…I asked Routledge to try its own experiment and volunteered to let it use my book (thinking it might have difficulty finding a Routledge author willing to put his/her royalties at risk). But I was turned down again. One mitigation is that my book has a paperback edition, and so far Chopra and Dexter’s does not.”

    What’s fascinating about that is the idea that the physical form of the book is somehow a fact about the book itself: the book either has or has not a paperback edition. That mountain has a snowy peak; that cat has short fur; that book has a paperback edition.

    In the Other Future — the one that will become the Actual Present any day now — hardback or paperback (or onscreen or Braille or whatever else) will simply be a decision the reader makes about their particular copy of the book. The concept of “having a paperback edition” will not be any more meaningful than the concept of being “out of print”.

    I realize Suber is talking about the realities of publishing today, not tomorrow. But what is it that makes a “prestigious publisher” prestigious? (Referring to his second comment now, the one that starts: “There’s a good reason why the OA movement focuses on literature that ‘scholars give to the world without expectation of payment’…”) Routledge’s reputation is due to its selectivity: their brand has a value because they don’t publish schlock. For a long time, it was the case that anything not published by a reputable publisher was likely to be schlock, and thus we came to equate “published by a good publisher” with “is probably worth reading”, bidirectionally.

    That association is crumbling, as distribution is becoming decoupled from endorsement. Chopra and Dexter have already said that royalty income was not why they wrote the book (and they clearly don’t expect much in the way of royalties). They went the traditional publishing route for what Routledge’s endorsement would do for their reputations and readership, hoping that it would cause more people to read the book, or take it more seriously. (I include distribution chains and marketing as “endorsement”, because those are all ultimately dependent on the publisher’s reputation. Routledge itself may be expecting to make some money on the book, of course, though I doubt that they are motivated purely by economic concerns either, otherwise they’d be in investment banking instead of high-quality publishing.)

    Thus there is bit of a positive feedback mechanism operating here:

    Authors who write quality books (though without the expectation of profit), and who want to be taken seriously, withhold their books from freedom in order to receive the benefits of endorsement from a publisher. The publisher’s reputation is enhanced by publishing such books, thus making the publisher’s endorsement more valuable for future authors, who will thus be tempted to follow the same route as their predecessors.

    I have a suggestion for a system that has the same dynamics, but without the restrictions on copying and derivation:

    A book review site where authors pay to have their books reviewed, and then get a percentage of ad revenue from the review page :-) .

    I’m only half joking. The reviewers have exactly the same incentives as publishers do to remain honest despite a financial tie to the book: reputation. A reviewer’s long-term value lies in her reputation. If distribution becomes a non-issue (as it slowly is doing), then we can have the same trade in reputations, but without all the restrictions. The reviewers could have the option to not review, turning down the author’s money, if they feel that spending space on the book will harm their reputation.

    In fact, I think this is more or less what’s going on now. Today, the payment the author makes is the copyright: the handing over of everyone else’s freedoms to the publisher, in exchange for the “review” (that is, the decision to publish and market, which is quite similar to the decision to review a book at all).

    Someone’s going to say “But what about editors?” I’ll just answer: if editing is important to making good books, then authors who want to write good books will find a way to get editing. After all, regular food consumption is important to writing books, and authors find a way to make that happen. Why does editing have to be supplied by the same people who are endorsing your book, and why do those people have to be the same as the ones distributing it?

    What I want to say to Chopra and Dexter is: publishing this way contributes to a feedback loop that no longer needs to exist. It will only stop when people realize they can step off the merry-go-round. I do understand the decision, and sympathize… But the “free scene” could really have used the reputation enhancement that you sold to Routledge instead. That way future authors who want to release things freely would have a slightly less steep hill to climb, because you would have made it that much more acceptable.

    We’re all in the same cage. But the jailers threw the key in with us long ago; the rest is up to us.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — August 31, 2007 @ 9:27 am

  2. Again we see a techno-utopianism that rejects the embodied physicality of books in favour of a kind of digital ephemerality. Books are surely not just containers for content. They have a materiality and physicality that *adds* to the meaning and presence of the book that is being read. The texture of the paper, the curl of the page, the hardness (or not) of the cover. The size and style of the font and the text layout. And lastly the smell and yellowing of the pages, particularly for books that are long out of print or from dusty areas of the library. Books are collected and lovingly held by the reader, not just cast into the trash after reading. And books tell a story, the manufacturing processes (e.g. the brittle yellowness of post 1850 texts), the style of italics, underlining and the embossing of the text into the paper. Even our own comments or marks made in previous incarnations of ourselves (undergrad/MA/PhD)…

    When we read books, particularly books that are from libraries and second-hand, they sometimes tell us secret stories; who has taken them out, long forgotten underlinings, or pencil barbs in the marginalia, old bus tickets hidden deep in the unread (you can always tell) later chapters. Even the quality of the book – well thumbed, sun bleached, ragged or coffee stained can tell us its history and in some senses how important it was. I always am shocked to take a great book out of the library to notice it has *never* been taken out, or perhaps once in the distant past.

    By focusing only on the issue of copyright and digital distribution is to forget that we are embodied beings. The mediation (or perhaps remediation) of texts distances us from them, and the artificial simulated page-turn of a PDF document from JSTOR (who incidentally cut up and trash the journals they scan as part of the digitalisation process) will never quite have the same feel as hunting down the text yourself.

    Seeking digitalisation for the sake of some desired ‘freedom’ from the contraints of the physical or libertarian desire to be completely unshacked from the Other reminds me of a quote from Albert Borgman:

    A thing…is inseparable from it context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely engagement. The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement withe the thing’s world.

    So I wonder to what extent the discussion of the horror of copyright manifested within this discourse of the need for ‘information to be free’ is in some regard a network ideology exhibiting some distrust of the social (as manifested by a social contract embedded within copyright law)? Or perhaps a disgust with the body or the profane?

    Again I wonder what is the point of this ‘freedom’ if it is merely to allow a international digital class to collect, edit and distribute digital resources amongst themselves. The way that this discussion is centred one would think that copyright was the greatest evil ever inflicted upon mankind. Perhaps one should reflect on possible improvements to the social good through a taxation on the profits from copyright that was used to alleviate poverty or sickness? Surely copyright is one of a number of policy tools to balance our social lives, the balance may need to be corrected, or indeed it may need to be abolished if the public good it purports to support no longer holds true. I personally do not think that we have arrived at that point. One of the greatest exponents of the digitalisation and abolition of the physical is, of course, Google (e.g. ‘intelligent’ advertising everywhere). The reasons they advocate such a strategy seems to me… not exactly altruistic.

    Anyway, this is kind of an argument I try to look at in On Byways and Backlanes: A Philosophy of Free Culture

    Comment by David Berry — September 3, 2007 @ 10:04 am

  3. Huh?

    No one here is arguing against books as physical objects. I love printed books too, and have plenty of them. Many, many people love printed books, and since there so many such people, there will be a market for treeware versions of books.

    Perhaps there’s just a terminology confusion going on here. When one says “book”, one could mean a physical object, with pages, a spine, old coffee stains, etc. Or one could mean the content of the book.

    We all use the word in both senses, depending on the context. When you say “I’m really tired because of my book”, for example, you don’t mean you’re tired from physically carrying around a bound stack of paper; you mean you’re tired from entering words into your word processing program, words that will one day be embodied in physical copies of that book. (Note how the word “book” at the end of the previous sentence still refers to the content, not the treeware.)

    Throughout my post above, I was using the word “book” in the “content” sense. Your response used it in the “bound paper” sense, apparently under the impression that that’s what I’d been talking about too. I’m not sure what I said to give that impression, though.

    I’m all for bound paper. I’ve never read an entire book on a computer (except for ones I wrote), and I don’t expect I ever will. Paper is a better, more humane interface. My comments were about how we treat the digital data that form the “masters” for printed books today. (Publishers do not have compositors sitting around grabbing bits of type off trays anymore.) I’m certainly not suggesting that just because the words are in a digital file, that we should read them on a computer screen instead of on paper.

    “Surely copyright is one of a number of policy tools to balance our social lives, the balance may need to be corrected, or indeed it may need to be abolished if the public good it purports to support no longer holds true.”

    Yes, that’s what I’m arguing.

    The word “balance” is often used to avoid examining assumptions, and I think that’s going on here. What forces is copyright “balancing” today, exactly? I’m not saying there are none, but it’s not immediately obvious which ones you’re talking about…

    Comment by Karl Fogel — September 3, 2007 @ 12:24 pm

  4. David,

    I am not sure if anyone here was setting up some binary or hierarchy in which the digital is fetishized up and above or over the “material” form of the book. It is just a recognition that there are various mediums, and each has different uses, affordances, and political possibilities.

    I agree with everything you have said about the material book; my own preference is for content to be printed in bound form as it just is tiring and hard to read them off the screen. It would be a real loss if we lost the book, I would never do away with books in the printed form, although in my ideal world, I would have both, and it is an ideal, that is possible given the low-cost of reproducing digital content.

    That is, I don’t think it is an either/or proposition. We should have printed books and we should make them available online in a legal and infrastructural format that makes it easy (or easier) to circulate, propagate and spread. I would hope that throwing something online would not prevent the printed form but allow for different types of uses. Again, if a book is 95 bucks, then it is nice to have the digital content available as well, because there are many people who cannot afford it and who will not have access to even a second hand copy or a library. To take Samir and Scott’s book, I know of many folks in Brazil, very active in the world of free software or free culture, who would simply gulp that book down and they should have the opportunity to read it.

    Two additional comments: A more liberal or even non-existent copyright regime does not mean we cannot have books in a non-digital format (though the economics of this must surely be hammered out and it may require a liberalization of copyright as opposed to complete obliteration but this is something that must be worked out).

    Second, digital formats have their own peculiar forms of embodiment and materiality too; they are just different from the printed form. So the Borgman quote (which funny enough, is from the very small section that I teaching), I think equally applies to digital material! It is just the so called context of engagement is different.

    Comment by Biella — September 3, 2007 @ 12:57 pm

  5. There is no evidence that copyright is necessary to pay for printed copies of books. If people want content in printed form, they’ll pay for the printed form. They already do today, so we know how much it costs and what people are willing to pay. It all already works out.

    On-demand printing machines print at a penny a page, plus a small fixed cost for the cover. So that 300-page paperback should cost somewhere between $3 and $5. Call it $10, to cover the cost of the machine and for profit. We’re still well within, and even under, the cost of a standard paperback in a bookstore.

    This means it’s economical for bookstores to carry books, with or without copyright.

    So if we cannot come up with another justification for copyright, I don’t think “covering printing costs” will fit the bill either.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — September 3, 2007 @ 1:22 pm

  6. Here is where political economy must come back in. If no-one is arguing against the loss of the book then the question must be how are we to ensure its survival. In other words to safeguard the public good of book production in a form which we all agree far exceeds the form of digital books. The whole point of copyright is that it makes in economic for publishers to produce books, and lots of them, and that they can use the profits on the ‘sellers’ to fund the risks, bad ‘sellers’ and low ‘sellers’.

    Karl, you seem to forget that without this temporary monopoly of copyright there is nothing to stop others from producing printed copies, which might be poor quality, cheap prints and which thus undermine the entire book publishing model. POD books might have their place but they are not very high quality and there is nothing to stop the economics reaching a point where all the books look the same, have poor quality proof-reading and editing because it has all become uneconomic. It seems to me that if you are agreeing with my comments then you must follow the logic through to accept that we already have the two worlds you desire – a copyright one, and a free culture through free licenses. You claim that there is *no* evidence that copyright is required, but seriously your claim is clearly ridiculous. Without copyright there is no stability in income for the publisher and no guarantee that they will make a profit – we might have a more useful discussion (as Biella has suggested) over the *term* or the *breadth* of cover but you are seriously misrepresenting the history of copyright in your posts.

    Biella, I do think that a digital utopianism *is* underlying the discussion with Karl. I really don’t think he has made a good case for the abolition of copyright beyond mere assertion. His claims to historical support for his argument betrays a very shaky understanding of the economics of publishing. To argue against copyright and hope that the publishers will continue publishing books when all the content is freely distributed and easily copied undermines the model completely (this is the critical point and why we need to think carefully about the ‘four freedoms’ versus the public good of publishing). I don’t deny we *could* do abolish copyright, and I don’t deny that producing books would be radically different. I just wonder if Karl’s plan will produce what we would want as a public good. That has to be at the root of the discussion.

    Regarding your comment on the forms of embodiment of the digital, I do not just think they are ‘different’ from traditional book forms, I think they are worse. And the context of engagement is one of the radical difference between a mediated and non-mediated (or perhaps double hermeneutic) of encounter between the digital as against the paper form of books. I also think we should be careful about thinking that the form does not affect the reading process – the detrimental act of reading from the screen surely should raise questions about a plan to give texts digitality to countries that might benefit more from cheaper editions of the *paper* version. Content can not be so easily disconnected from form – and this, I believe, is the argument that Borgmann is making.

    Karl is essentially making a polemic against copyright mainly based on the ‘four freedoms’ for software. I do not know where these ‘freedoms’ come from (because they are not critically examined) and I do not share the desire for the market to be the only way in which we know if books are ‘good’ or not. More so the idea of advertising supported book publication fills me with horror – I would choose copyright any day. These assumptions by Karl are all based on a libertarian free-market ideal of a notional ‘noosphere’ that is free-flowing and ‘fluid’ and allows information to flow unconstrained anywhere (presumably where there is ‘demand’).

    Do you really think that academic publishing (in particular) is broken, so broken that it requires such radical treatment? And is so, are you sure that you will recognise the patient afterwards. Indeed, will it even wake up. Copyright is a state sanctioned monopoly designed to encourage the production of all sorts of books – as many as possible – and the University library system works in conjunction to essentially create a market for high quality well edited, proofed academic texts that add original thought and high quality thinking to our cultural legacy. That is a public good.

    So yes, lets discuss terms and breadth. But talking about abolishing copyright is pointless unless it is part of a more radical political philosophy (e.g. socialism, perhaps, in other words part of a whole political programme towards human flourishing). It seems to me that as Karl is outlining it, abolishing copyright lies in the road to unencumbered digital capitalism.

    Comment by David Berry — September 4, 2007 @ 2:37 am

  7. An interesting discussion relevant to our debate is taking place here on slashdot.

    Comment by David Berry — September 4, 2007 @ 8:58 am

  8. David, I think you’re analyzing the economics of publishing, rather than the economics of printing. I fully agree that the modern publishing industry depends on copyright. But why do you assume that the casting of books into physical form (printing) must be done by the same people who select/vet/endorse/market books (publishing)?

    I don’t see why it’s a bad thing that people get to choose the quality of the copy they get, according to price. This discussion started out with a book that costs $90, after all.

    Fidelity of text is no longer an issue; digital technology has taken care of that. It would be easy for an irate customer to both detect and prove that they had not gotten a reliable copy of something. When you go to Kinkos, do you worry that the machines won’t print faithful copies of the source materials?

    You assume that editing is something that must be done prior to publication (that is, prior to public release). We have jettisoned that assumption in the free software world, and that seems to have worked out fine. Continuous post-publication editing works quite well.

    Your assertion about POD books doesn’t match my experience. I’ve held them in my hands; they can be indistinguishable from trade paperbacks. (Otherwise Amazon wouldn’t be selling them!)

    If you’re claiming that copyright was “designed to encourage the production of all sorts of books – as many as possible”, then we indeed have a large disagreement about the history of copyright. Do you know where it comes from?

    Comment by Karl Fogel — September 4, 2007 @ 12:51 pm

  9. Fidelity of text is no longer an issue

    I think this is what sums up your argument. You miss the critical point that we are not talking about the quality of reproduction. It is the quality of the books argument, structure, concepts, theories and ideas combined with the importance of well proofed, clearly organised (contents/footnotes/index) editing and these things cost a lot of time and money.

    Continuous post-publication editing works quite well

    I’m afraid it doesn’t if you are expecting a well formed stable argument. Editing forms part of the publication process. I hardly see science journals accepting submissions that can be edited later as the maths was wrong, or humanities allowing people to go back and change their argument on a published piece. We are not talking about software here, we are talking about the production of research and culture.

    then we indeed have a large disagreement about the history of copyright. Do you know where it comes from?

    Well first we would need to be a little careful here. As Foucault argues, we are always already writing a history of the present so we must be careful not to read into the past what we would like to find.

    Comment by David Berry — September 5, 2007 @ 1:16 am

  10. “It is the quality of the books argument, structure, concepts, theories and ideas combined with the importance of well proofed, clearly organised (contents/footnotes/index) editing and these things cost a lot of time and money.”

    I’m not sure where to start; we may be living in different universes.

    In the open source world (I use the term synonymously with “free software” — too much is made of the alleged schism between them), we tend to think of the attributes you list as being emergent properties of a collaborative process. It may be egalitarian, or it may be hierarchical (a small number of “core authors” taking feedback from a much larger number of less involved “editors”), or it may be some other system, but it works. The Open Access movement in the sciences is essentially an assertion that the same process will work for academic research.

    Have you run the numbers? In the economic arguments made so far, I seem to be the only one supplying actual numbers. That makes me a bit suspicious. If you claim copyright is paying for the above necessary services, it might be good to look at what percentage of the typical publisher’s budget goes to them (academic publishers will no doubt score higher than trade publishers).

    Have you examined works from respected academics that were released free on the Net, and found them to be of lower quality than their proprietary publications? I’ve seen no such trend, at least in the stuff I read.

    By the way, indexes are much less important when digital data is available. After all, an index is just a paper-based search mechanism. If you have a digital copy of the text, you’re less likely to need an index in the first place, and it’s also much easier to generate an index (it becomes a human-assisted automatic process, essentially, and is parallelizable).

    “I hardly see science journals accepting submissions that can be edited later as the maths was wrong, or humanities allowing people to go back and change their argument on a published piece. We are not talking about software here, we are talking about the production of research and culture.”

    But, but… Mathematicians, scientists, and writers in the humanities go back and revise their works all the time. Are you seriously arguing that the production of research and culture depends on stasis and is threatened by revision? I would think the opposite is the case.

    Have you read many science or math journals? Did you follow, say, the story of Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem?

    You’re fetishizing “publication” as some kind of special event, where the gate goes down and the work is announced with great fanfare even as it is frozen into a final form (at least until the publication of a revised version, a job currently done only by someone approved by the copyright holder). There is no need for things to be like that, and in fact, they haven’t been like that in practice even under copyright. But the advent of zero-cost distribution and an anyone-can-edit culture make that vision of cultural production even more of a myth than it already was.

    It’s not as if continuous revision implies some sort of untrackable chaos. A revision of a work is a well-delineated event: you have version X, then you have version Y, and the difference between them is discrete and expressible (especially when all the versions of the work are available in digital formats). So if someone makes an argument in version X, then modifies or repudiates it in version Y, we just refer to the correct version when citing. Those authors who prefer to can change the title or add a note about the revision, to avoid confusion.

    How do you explain all the culture produced before copyright existed? Did people have difficulty producing “well-formed, stable” arguments before 1554, or 1710?

    Comment by Karl Fogel — September 5, 2007 @ 7:58 am

  11. Regarding history:

    “Well first we would need to be a little careful here. As Foucault argues, we are always already writing a history of the present so we must be careful not to read into the past what we would like to find.”

    You brought up the history, not me. Who would argue against “being careful”? I’m all for it :-) .

    You claimed that copyright was “designed” to accomplish a certain goal. “Designed” a verb with a specific meaning, and I think it’s reasonable to ask for some evidence of this goal-directed design process having occurred, in the way that you claim.

    I don’t think it actually did happen in quite the way you describe; my skepticism is based on a historical examination. I’d be happy to supply a bibliography.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — September 5, 2007 @ 9:54 am

  12. Sorry for the third post in a row… I’m going to have to duck out now, with regrets, only due to lack of time (I have some pressing work, and limited Net access this week, so no more blog scanning for a while). Thanks for the enjoyable conversation, David; last word is yours if you want it :-) .

    Comment by Karl Fogel — September 5, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  13. I note that you immediately switch to the digital realm when trying to refute my argument. In other words, the implicit assumption that the digital is ‘better’. Secondly, you again make the mistake of assuming writing texts is analogous to writing software. It is not. I have no problems with the FLOSS approaches to software (although careful political economy shows that the economic costs are often hidden or disguised) and I have no doubt that an open method of collaborative writing is great for software. This does not mean that it is equally valid in other disciplines and we should be attentive to the hidden ideology that lies beneath the surface of open source.

    I think that it is incontrovertible that copyright was designed. I am sure you are not of the opinion that copyright originally grew ‘naturally’ and it is clear that it was initially designed to facilitate a particular goal (which of course may have been contested at the time). Later ages have slightly different ideals, plans and intentions which they tacked onto copyright (for example software copyright) but that does not mean that in each case a specific goal was not intended – namely the production of a limited monopoly to facilitate a public good through a private interest. This is perhaps the best expression of that doctrine from Thomas Babington Macaulay in the 19th Century.

    Thus then stands the case: it is good that authors should be remunerated and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly, yet monopoly is an evil for the sake of the good. We must submit to the evil, but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.

    Regarding history and Foucault, my point is that it is interesting to note the way in which copyright is cast today and the way in which it is seen as a particular evil. This is a relatively new development and we must question why it is that for such a long period copyright was relatively uncontroversial, indeed considered ‘technical’ legislation, but today it is extremely emotive.

    Comment by David Berry — September 6, 2007 @ 2:14 am

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