Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ithaka Does A Good Thing

I've been very critical of Ithaka, so it is only fair that I point out that yesterday they did a very good thing:
"Today, we are making journal content on JSTOR published prior to 1923 in the United States and prior to 1870 elsewhere freely available to the public for reading and downloading. This content includes nearly 500,000 articles from more than 200 journals, representing approximately 6% of the total content on JSTOR."
It was, after all, hard to justify charging JSTOR's punitive or obscure per-article access charges for content that had entered the public domain. These charges may seem like a bug, in that they are so high as to almost completely deter access and thus generate very little income. But in fact they are a feature. Suppose Ithaka was to decide that, since there was very little use of per-article access and thus very little income, they would charge for it on a cost-recovery basis. The marginal cost of an extra access to the JSTOR system is minimal, so per-article access would be very cheap. Libraries that currently subscribe to JSTOR would drop their subscriptions and go pay-per-view, destroying the subscription business model. Punitive per-article charges are essential to preserving Ithaka's cash cow.

They are, however, part of a much bigger problem that I touched on in my post on the problems of research communication. It is well illustrated by Kent Anderson's vehement response to George Monbiot's diatribe against academic publishers:
"Let’s assume I can read the whole paper. Like 99.9% of the population, I’m not going to know what to make of it. It’s for specialists, or better, subspecialists ... There is no price in the world that’s going to make that scientific paper, or thousands of others, intelligible, relevant, or meaningful to me in any way that’s going to affect my ability to function in a democracy."
In other words, the general public has no business reading the academic literature.

But it is the general public that pays for the research that results in the papers that Kent thinks they shouldn't be reading, and that JSTOR and other academic publishers price beyond their means. If the general public is going to continue to pay for the research, and pay for the entire research communication system that includes both Ithaka, and Kent's Society for Scholarly Publishing, they need to believe that they're getting benefits in return.

Increasingly, thanks for example to well-funded campaigns of denial (e.g. tobacco, global warming, evolution) or fraud (e.g. MMR vaccine), the public is coming to believe that science is a conspiracy of insiders to feather their own nests at public expense. Even if I agreed with Kent that lay people would be unable to understand his example paper, the pricing model that ensures they can't afford to read it, and the attitude that they shouldn't be allowed to read it, are both very unhelpful.

There is a lot of research into the effect of Internet information on patients. The conclusions in terms of outcomes are fewer, but positive:
"Provision of information to persons with cancer has been shown to help patients gain control, reduce anxiety, improve compliance, create realistic expectations, promote self-care and participation, and generate feelings of safety and security. Satisfaction with information has been shown to correlate with quality of life, and patients who feel satisfied with the adequacy of information given are more likely to feel happy with their level of participation in the overall process of decision making."
These studies don't distinguish between the academic literature and sites targeted at lay readers, but it is clear that patients searching for information who encounter paywalls are less likely to "feel satisfied with the adequacy of information given" and thus have poorer quality of life.

The story of the illness of Larry Lessig's newborn daughter Samantha Tess (about 11:10 into the video) makes the case against the elitist view of access to research. To be sure, Larry is at Harvard and thus has free access to most of the literature. But consider an equally smart lawyer with an equally sick daughter in a developing country. He would no longer have free access via HINARI. According to Larry, he would have had to pay $435 for the 20 articles Larry read for free. Would he "feel satisfied with the adequacy of information given"?


Chris Rusbridge said...

Yes, Ithaka/JSTOR has been doing a bad thing for a long time in blocking access to public domain material. I know they add some value to it, but the price has been outrageous. Having recently (as you know) left academia for the private world, I find the single article prices absurd, and I am certain that, as you say, they exist not to earn money directly but to sustain subscriptions. But I don't think I could get a JSTOR subscription if I tried!

Even worse is ISO. I needed to look at a small number of ISO standards with relevance to risk assessment yesterday, in order to know whether I should reference them in a piece I'm writing. Total bill would have been around a thousand Swiss Francs! ISO gets a bit less than half its secretariat budget from sales (probably a tenth of its total budget), and the exclusionary business model resulting probably cuts its effectiveness by a couple of orders of magnitude! Grrr.

David. said...

Yesterday, Ithaka moved to address concerns among librarians about the cost of their subscriptions in two ways. They announced a new Arts & Sciences X collection with lower charges, and a way to spread the initial cost of subscribing to a set of collections over 10 years.

Of course, this doesn't affect the argument of this post, which is about individual rather than institutional access.

David. said...

Stuart Shieber comments on Ithaka's release of some public domain material. He attributes it to JSTOR; I think it is important to be clear that JSTOR and Portico are simply product lines of Ithaka, rather than independent organizations.