scholcom.pngSpent most of the day at the Publishing the Future symposium. I’ll restrict my remarks here to some quick observations on two recurring themes in several of the talks, since (fingers crossed) we’ll have videos of the talks up on the web within the next couple of weeks.

The first theme was related to a particular piece of pragmatic advice to scholars, repeated by several speakers: don’t give up your copyright. That means, chiefly, choose journals for publication that allow for self-archiving (posting copies to a personal website, for example). The majority of journals allow for this (55%), but a couple of speakers suggested that they have had success in simply amending copyright agreements to allow for this. This has never run them into trouble.

Over lunch, one of the attendees suggested that this is fine in concept for established scholars, but most early scholars are less likely to place an accepted publication in jeopardy by messing with the agreement. One way to help with this is to establish a model amendment: a short phrase that can be added to an agreement that would provide for the right to retain copyright and allow for web publication. I think that this would be a great thing for the faculty senate to provide here at UB, though I have a feeling that it is probably too conservative an organization to effectively do this.

The second major theme that came up was, as Jim Neal called it, the “Napsterization” of scholarly communication. Later, Clifford Lynch asked us to imagine a world in which the graduating senior left school with an iPod on her hip filled with a general library of their field. I find this a very compelling vision.

Why is it that students can have 40 gigs of music on their hip, but not 40 gigs of academic articles and books? The answer is easy enough: music traders challenged the music industry by ignoring their interpretation of copyright. (Some would phrase this differently: they stole it.) Once Napster exploded, the genie had left the bottle. Shutting down Napster and suing 12-year-olds was not going to stop it.

“But,” you may argue, “what about iTunes.”

Let’s just assume that iTunes is a Good Thing(tm), not something that everyone agrees upon. iTunes exists solely because of Napster. Napster was a message sent by masses of mass consumers that they didn’t like the balance of power between music publishers and music makers/listeners. Is the academic publishing industry different?

Over a period of about 15 years, the price for health care has increased a deplorable 111%. During the same time period the price of journals increased by 226%. The cost of producing these journals only increased 66%. What do we get out of this? Journal publishers that do a bad job of disseminating our research widely, and that have obscene profits.

There are a lot of proposals to encourage open access and experimentation in new publication models. In Julia Blixrud’s words “This is now a movement.” But it is a movement absent a radical wing.

The radical solution is for the scholar to emulate every suburban teenager, and put her or his collection of electronic scholarly texts on Kazaa, or a file swapping alternative. Most academics now have a number of pdfs on their hard drive. Share them.

The benefits are perhaps not as immediate as sharing music. Many of us can rely on a decent research library to access the literature. Are there other problems? Yes, of course. There is a lack of central indexing, and you never know if your needed article or book will be available. And it does seem as though it might stretch fair use near breaking. But fair use is an ambiguous line that is being eroded more and more every day. A little push back wouldn’t be out of order.

The possibility of a global, freely-accessible library is too valuable to ignore. We cannot afford to wait. We are on the cusp of a revolution. Just as Napster pushed us over the precipice, we need more than experiments.

Go and download Kazaa Light. (Though freenet is a better alternative in many ways, Kazaa has more users.) Search for pdfs and you will find ebooks, mainly on computing subjects. Share five of your own pdfs–either those you have authored or those you have liberated. In the later category, I would prefer they were works that the author has contributed to the commonweal, but I’m not fussy on that account. Download and share those pdfs, and we will start our own Scholster.

You already do it for students and colleagues. Now do it for–well–humanity.

Update (11/14): In response to this I should be careful to clarify: Clifford Lynch suggested it would be cool if students had a library in their iPod. Getting it there via trading files rather than buying ebooks was very much my own leap from that point. I very much doubt Lynch would endorse such a plan…

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