Open access to information: steps forward, steps back

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

The “open access” movement in scholarly publishing is one facet of a movement that considers all freely-available information to be a “public good”, beneficial to society in a general way.  Many practical issues arise from this argument, though, even among those who agree with its underlying philosophy.  Several recent news stories touch on the positive and negative aspects of freely-available information:

1) When the Google Books settlement with the Authors Guild was first proposed, many commentators make an argument like this:

“The plan Google is proposing is technically illegal, but we should support it anyway, because they have very deep pockets, and if they don’t scan all this stuff for us, no one else will.  And there’s no way we can get Congress to improve the law.”

In his decision rejecting the proposed  settlement:

Judge Chin, among other points, rejected this argument.  If something is illegal, he says (I’m paraphrasing here), it’s illegal, regardless of whether it’s a public good or not.  He also questioned whether the “good” being proposed is equally good for all parties.  One brief against the settlement discussed whether the Authors Guild, the settlement party claiming to represent all authors, was the right body to represent academic authors, for whom the profit motive is usually less important than for trade authors.

2) The Guardian newspaper in England reports on the most-prolific contributors to Wikipedia:

and then editorializes about how more academics should take part:

Meanwhile, a professor at Auburn University Montgomery successfully included his Wikipedia entries in his “publications” for his tenure review:

3) The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the problem of university presses declining to publish monographs derived from dissertations, if the dissertation is widely available online:

One detail of this discussion is that university libraries are the primary market for published revised dissertations.  If libraries decide, as a general rule, not to purchase them in print unless there’s strong demand, then presses should logically be more reluctant to spend money putting them out.  This affects the promotion and tenure process, though, since so many junior faculty members need to publish “books” before being promoted.

4) Robert Frost, the great-grandson of the famous poet, died recently.  He used the royalties he received from the poet’s works to create an Open Access publishing fund at the University of Michigan:

The younger Mr. Frost felt that since the public generated this money, through sales, they should enjoy the benefits of it.

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What’s in a name?

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Two interesting stories have made me think recently about the value of names in the modern publishing world.

One is the blog post by Heather Morrison:

discussing the likelihood that PLoS One:

the world’s largest open-access journal, is actually the world’s largest journal, period, as measured by number of papers published per year.

The other was my experience buying a long-out-of-print children’s fairy tale last Christmas.  Fifteen years ago, I would have had very little chance of finding this book anywhere, except by chance from a used dealer.  Ten years ago, I could have read the full text of the book via Project Gutenberg, but still not have easily obtained a printed copy.  Five years ago, I might have found a used print copy on Alibris or ABEBooks.

Today, though, searching the book on Amazon brings up literally dozens of imprints, both print and electronic.  It appears someone has digitized the book, and many publishers are reselling the scanned version, either as an e-book or via print-on-demand.  Some of the publishers have standard publisher-type names, but others reveal their digital roots with names like or CreateSpace.

What these two have in common is the changing significance of names.  What does it mean to call PLoS One a “journal”?  It publishes as many articles per year as a dozen other journals, and on a wide variety of subjects.  Journals traditionally have a particular subject as their focus, and a specific editorial policy.  PLoS One has no subject – it says it publishes “primary research from any scientific discipline” – and less editorial control than traditional journals, since it publishes any article “judged to be technically sound”.  In that sense, it’s somewhere between a traditional journal and a repository.

Likewise, does a “publisher” name mean less nowadays, if many publishers are printing the same scan of a book, just with different covers attached?  Will these publishers develop any sense of “brand” through design elements, or will they all be basically homogenous on the inside?

One of the publishers in this case is advertising its e-books with the distinctive orange-and-white stripe design of old Penguin paperback covers:

It’s apparently aware of the utility of distinguishing its brand through design elements – even another company’s design.

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Digital Scholarship, Scholarly Communication, and Disconnects

January 6, 2011 Leave a comment

As I prepare to attend the American Historical Association in Boston, it is interesting to note how use of digital publishing and technology is slowly creeping into the consciousness of historians.  At the 2011 meeting there are a few sessions which Dan Cohen’s blog mentions (Cohen is a professor at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University).  Particularly interesting is the session on dissertations.

The meeting I will be missing this weekend is the American Library Association where there will be many sessions on “scholarly communication” and the like, but interestingly these discussions do not seem to be making a great impact on practicing scholars.  The questions for me are:

1) How do we bridge this disconnect between what librarians discuss and what scholars are actually doing?

2) Are librarians not promoting the issues of scholarly communication well enough?

3)  Are the issues of “digital scholarship” (as for instance what historians are doing) and “scholarly communication” (as understood by librarians) actually different problems?

Obviously dissertations seem to be a common issue, but there are many other common issues and it seems that librarians and scholars (at least this particular group of scholars) are still not communicating as much as they need to about them.

I’d be interested if others have ideas about how to change this.

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When free journals are better than expensive journals

In a recent post on Everybody’s Libraries, I compare an expensive math journal with several free ones, showing several open access journals that have higher citation impact factors, including Penn’s own Electronic Journal of Combinatorics.  Many other fields also have have a similarly wide range of journal subscription or publication prices that have little or no relation with quality, as Ted Bergstrom notes elsewhere in the case of economics.  Both free and subscription-based journals rely heavily on donated labor from scholars.  Scholars can help ensure healthy communication in their fields by giving their support to those journals that produce high value for low cost.

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Is this Poster Illegal?

October 22, 2009 Leave a comment

From Slate a great article summarizing Fair Use law in terms of the Shepard Fairey case regarding his use of the AP photo of Obama.


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Hindawi on the Future of Scholarly Publishing

October 22, 2009 Leave a comment

An article by Ahmed Hindawi of Hindawi Publishing


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Communicating knowledge: How & why UK researchers publish & disseminate their findings

September 18, 2009 Leave a comment
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Is There a Future for Journals in the Humanities?

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment

From the American Historical Association, on the future of humanities journals


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Peer Review Failure?

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment

From Inside Higher Ed, on the problems of some peer review systems.


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Copyright Office slams Google Book deal

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment
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