Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Modeling the Economics of Long-Term Storage

I gave a talk at the Library of Congress workshop on Designing Storage Architectures entitled Modeling the Economics of Long-Term Storage. It was talk about work in progress with Library of Congress funding, expanding ideas I described in these two blog posts about ways to compare the costs of different approaches to long term storage. I had only 10 minutes to speak, so below the fold is an expanded and edited text of the talk with links to the sources.

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"?

Friday, September 2, 2011

What's Wrong With Research Communication

The recent Dagstuhl workshop on the Future of Research Communication has to produce a report. I was one of those tasked with a section of the report entitled What's Wrong With The Current System?, intended to motivate later sections describing future activities aimed at remedying the problems. Below the fold is an expanded version of my draft of the section, not to be attributed to the workshop or any other participant. Even my original draft was too long; in the process of getting to consensus, it will likely be cut and toned down. I acknowledge a debt to the very valuable report of the UK House of Common's Science & Technology Committee entitled Peer review in scientific publications.