March 17, 2018

The Revolution Will Not Be Subscription-Based | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

Barbara Fister ponders the meaning of “free” in a digital future.

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

The notion of “free” is being debated throughout the information ecosystem. Perhaps thinking about “free” as in “public library” might help us sort through the various permutations of the word and why, when we look to the future, a lot will depend on how we define this slippery word.

Free to all
The first municipal public library supported with public funds, Boston Public, has inscribed over its main entrance, “Free to All.” That’s one of the defining features of public libraries in the United States: they are free.

Free as in beer? Well, no. They aren’t supported by advertising or subscriptions or pay-per-view charges, but they do depend on local public funding. However, patrons can walk in the door, use the Internet, ask questions, and walk out with an armful of books without being charged based on how often they visit or how much they borrow.

People who choose not to use the library pay on behalf of those who choose to use it, because like universal education, schooling is considered socially beneficial even for those who don’t have kids. A less well-known slogan chiseled into Boston Public Library’s façade reads “THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY.” Okay, that sounds a little starchy by today’s standards, but safeguarding liberty still seems like a good plan.

Some critics have questioned why the government should collect taxes to fund free access to the same materials that Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes provide so conveniently, and occasionally local governments, faced with a budget shortfall, close their public libraries. The astonishing thing is that, in a country where taxes are right up there in popularity with death, when money is tight, few communities decide they can do without libraries altogether.

Free as in kittens? Oh my, yes. Libraries need to be fed, and they need some modicum of love and attention. They do a pretty good job of walking by themselves, but they can’t be sustained on volunteer labor and fed with scraps from the dumpster. You want a library, it’s a public responsibility.  

Free as in speech? Most definitely. Libraries have traditionally been a place where you will find a wide range of opinions, where a multiplicity of reading tastes have been nourished in a cultural democracy, and where the freedom to read has been staunchly defended. That freedom to read may be fought in court or in the city council chambers or even in some libraries where patrons or staff still don’t get it, but the end result is that you are free to read what you want no matter what your class, age, religion, or sexual orientation might be.

Free is not a price
In a review of Chris Anderson’s recent book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Cory Doctorow says wisely that not everything we humans do is about making money. Some creativity is in a very real sense “priceless”—without a price or any expectation of reward beyond itself. For that reason it’s not accurate to say it’s “free”—as if to imply it’s on sale for a low, low price. And Doctorow points out that though Anderson goes through contortions to explain the market value of free goods, the go-go economic context for his argument took a tumble in the latest crash.

More importantly, the focus on economic mechanisms ignores important non-monetary motivators. Doctorow concludes, “to discuss ‘free’ without taking note of the ways in which it both challenges and reinforces non-market ways of living just as much as it does for market-driven ones is to only tell half the story.”

A lot of the read/write web is creativity that has no economic pretentions. It’s story-telling. It’s conversation. It’s advocacy, or passion, or poetry. Sometimes, yes, it’s "slworking." But the infrastructure that we use to share our creativity often has a publicly-traded potential that is worth a lot, even though in many cases it hasn’t yet actually generated any revenue. It’s easy, in this environment, to lose something of value because it’s not contributing to the bottom line.

In other cases the price we pay is invisible but very real: micropayments of personal information which, in the aggregate, are a hot commodity. This cost runs directly counter to free as in “freedom to read” because privacy is a necessary condition for exploring ideas without fear of consequences. 

Freedom and the press
Scott Rosenberg
writing at The Idea Lab dismisses much of the talk around finding the right price for journalism in an article titled “The Great News Business Model Is a Wild Goose Chase.” He values good reporting, and he’s not surprised that everyone in the news business is wondering how news will survive in the digital future because it’s clear that the old business model is no longer working. But he thinks “how can we change the business model to support what we do?” is the wrong question.

It’s backwards. The newsrooms of today acquired their size and shape and structure thanks to the business model that supported institutions of their size. The world has changed; that model is vanishing. We shouldn’t be asking ‘What sort of business can support a newsroom online?’ The question is, ‘What’s the best kind of newsroom that the online business can support?’

This is exactly the sort of thinking we need for reimagining scholarly communication. Yes, the shift will be messy and complicated for news and for scholarship. A news organization that has to keep selling advertising and delivering papers to people’s doorsteps every morning has a hard time envisioning digital publishing as anything but a costly add-on that distracts people from their jobs and competes with subscriptions. But it’s the boardroom that has a faulty imagination; many reporters are ready for change.

Scholars are in a similar position. Most would say: “give me a chance to get my research out there in some respected form, and I’ll be happy.” But we have to stop thinking “what business model can support our current modes of scholarly communication” by a shell game of charging scholars and/or charging libraries for commercial publishing services and instead focus on “what’s the best process for disseminating high-quality scholarship in a digital world?”

Between scholars, university press personnel, and librarians, we have some smart people in the room. We can figure this out if we want to, but not in our spare time, after we’ve processed our latest invoices and tinkered with the link resolver and proxy server so they actually let us get to our temporarily-accessible commercially-produced content.

"Free for all" versus free-for-all
It was just a little over two years ago when Steve Jobs predicted the Kindle would fail because “people don’t read anymore.” Now he’s come down from the mountain with a tablet that will supposedly revolutionize the market for books and other print media. The killer app is the iBookstore that has the backing of major publishers. The new tablet has color and the potential for embedded video, which excites those who think textbooks want to be digital. (This, of course, includes publishers who love the idea of killing off the used textbook market once and for all.) For someone who dismissed books not long ago, Jobs sounds pretty jazzed about selling them.

There are at least two reasons that publishers are happily clambering aboard the iBook bus. First, they want to break the grip Amazon has on ebook pricing (though, to be perfectly fair, the price of ebooks will be set by consumers; Amazon is listening and publishers aren’t).

Second, digital impulse purchases make it easy to pay for access to books and hard to share them, which is the publisher’s ideal state. I laughed out loud when Iris Jastrom of Carleton College coined a catchy slogan for the new app: “iBooks: Putting the i in DRM.” (She added she isn’t sure they will come with DRM, but I’m pretty certain publishers will insist on it. They had a collective anxiety attack when Barnes and Nobles tried to enable limited sharing with their nook reader.)  

The Wall Street Journal, reporting excited backstage buzz, predicts “Apple Portends Rewrite for Publishers.” (You may have to turn to a library database to read the whole story, or google the title, though, since the link puts you behind subscriber paywall—go figure.)

There’s nothing free about this version of the future—not as in beer or as in speech. And these not-so-free proprietary kittens that take a lot of feeding have a much shorter life-span than real cats. The only thing that might remotely be considered “free” about it is that you’re free to get limited access to what you want right now—for a price.

Does it matter to us?
As I am frequently reminded, academic libraries are not free to all. Instead of “Free for All” inscribed over our doors, most of us essentially have “Authorized Personnel Only.” On top of that, because of license agreements (almost always negotiated in secret) we have to hire virtual guards to slam the doors on anyone who isn’t a paying member of our gated communities.

We could change that if we want. We could put our shoulders behind open access and digital scholarship that isn’t distributed through corporations. We could make open information a bigger part of our instruction and collection development efforts. But it will take more than libraries. It will take the will of the creators, reviewers, and editors of scholarly content and that will take money, because open access is free as in kittens. Libraries and the institutions we serve will have to put our money where our values are.

Public libraries are hurting, but in spite of all the vitriol toward taxes and government in general, they still have an amazing amount of grassroots support. Academic libraries are hurting, but our digital dreams of satisfying our patrons so they can get what they want right now tend to be subscription-based or pay-per-view, and that erodes the half of the equation that Doctorow recognizes: we can provide access (with strings attached), but we can’t foster sharing or preservation of knowledge for the public good.

Unless we want our future outsourced, unless we want to risk culture being switched off when we can’t pay the bills, unless we want sharing disabled to protect unsustainable business models, higher education has to change. We need to put time and money behind institutional repositories, digital scholarship, and open access publishing ventures. We need to be imaginative about creating and sharing high-quality scholarship.

Because when you come right down to it, we’re talking about free as in intellectual freedom.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books this year.

Read more Newswire stories:

EBSCO and Gale Trade Barbs Over Exclusive Contracts and Rights to Distribution

Four Universities Settle Suit over Accessibility to Kindle for the Blind

At Deadline for Comment on Google Deal, Grimmelmann & Co. Recommend Rejection

Lessig Warns that Google Deal Would Pave Way for Metered Access to Culture

Cornell Calls for Shared Support of arXiv Repository

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