I did not initially pay much attention when publisher John Wiley announced early in September that they would impose download limits on users of their database “effective immediately.” My first thought was “if they are going to disable the database, I wonder how much the price will decrease.” Then I smiled to myself, because this was a pure flight of fantasy. Like other publishers before it, Wiley, out of fear and confusion about the Internet, will reduce the functionality of its database in order to stop “piracy,” but the changes will likely do nothing to actually address the piracy problem and will simply make the product less useful to legitimate customers. But it is foolish to imagine that, by way of apology for this act, Wiley will reduce the price of the database. As contracts for the database come up for renewal, in fact, I will bet that the usual 6-9% price increase will be demanded, in fact, and maybe even more.
As the discussion of this plan unfolded, I got more interested, mostly because Wiley was doing such a bad job of explaining it to customers. More about that in a moment. But first it is worth asking the serious question of whether or not the plan — a hard limit on downloads of 100 articles within a “rolling” 24 hour period — will actually impact researchers. I suspect that it will, at least at institutions like mine with a significant number of doctoral students. Students who do intensive research, including those writing doctoral dissertations as well as students or post-docs working in research labs, sometimes choose to “binge” on research, dedicating a day or more to gathering all of the relevant literature on a topic. Sometimes this material will be download so that it can be reviewed for relevance to the project at hand, and a significant amount of it will be discarded after that review. Nothing in this practice is a threat to Wiley’s “weaken[ed]” business, nor is it outside of the bounds of the expected use of research databases. But Wiley has decided, unilaterally, to make such intensive research more difficult. In my opinion, this is a significant loss of functionality in their product — it becomes less useful for our legitimate users — which is why I wondered about a decrease in the price.
The text of the announcement was strangely written, in my opinion. For one thing, I immediately distrust something that begins “As you are aware,” since it usually means that someone is about to assert categorically something that is highly dubious, and they do not wish to have to defend that assertion. So it is here, where we are told that we are aware of the growing threat to Wiley’s intellectual property by people seeking free access. I am very much aware that Duke pays a lot for the access that our researchers have to the Wiley databases, so this growing threat is purely notional to me. As is so common for the legacy content industries, their “solutions” to piracy are often directed at the wrong target. So it is with this one. As a commenter on the LibLicense list pointed out, Wiley should be addressing automated downloads done by bots, not the varied and quite human research techniques of its registered users.
Another oddity was the second paragraph of the original announcement, which seems to apologize for taking this action “on our own,” without support form the “industry groups” in which Wiley is, they say, a “key player.” As a customer, I am not sure why I should care about whether the resource I have purchased is broken in concert with other vendors or just by one “key player.” But the fact that Wiley thought it needed to add this apology may indicate that it is aware that it is following a practice that has been largely shown throughout the content industry to be ineffective against piracy and alienating to genuine customers. Perhaps, to look on the bright side, it means that other academic article vendors will not follow Wiley’s lead on this.
Things got even stranger when Wiley issued a “clarification” that finally addressed, after a 10 day delay, a question posed almost as soon as the first announcement was made, which was about exactly who would be affected by the limitation. That delay, in fact, made me wonder if Wiley had not actually fully decided on the nature of the limitation at the time of the first announcement, and waited until a decision was made, belatedly, to answer the question. In any case, the answer was that the limitation would only be imposed on “registered users.” That clarification said users who accessed the database through IP recognition or via a proxy would not be affected, and that these non-registered users made up over 95% of the database usage. So as Wiley asserts that this change will make little difference, they also raise the question of why do it at all. It seems counter-intuitive that registered users would raise the biggest threat of piracy, and no evidence of that is offered. And I wonder (I really do not know) why some users register while most, apparently, do not. If Wiley offers registration as an option, they must think it is beneficial. But by the structure of this new limitation, they create a strong incentive for users not to register. But then Wiley adds a threat — they will continue to look for other, presumably more potent, ways to prevent “systematic downloads.” So our most intensive researchers are not out 0f the woods yet; Wiley may take further action to make the database even less usable.
All of this made me doubt that this change had really been carefully thought out. And it also reminded me that the best weapon against unilateral decisions that harm scholarship and research is to stop giving away the IP created by our faculty members to vendors who deal with it in costly and irresponsible ways. One of the most disturbing things about the original announcement is Wiley’s reference to “publishers’ IP.” Wiley, of course, created almost none of the content they sell; they own that IP only because it has been transferred to them. If we could put an end to that uneven and unnecessary giveaway, this constant game of paying more for less would have to stop. So I decided to write a message back to Wiley, modeled on their announcement and expressive of the sentiment behind the growing number of open access policies at colleges and universities. Here is how it will begin:
As you are aware, the products of scholarship, created on our campuses and at our expense, are threatened by a growing number of deliberate attempts to restrict access only to those who pay exorbitant rates. These actors weaken our ability to support the scholarly enterprise by insisting copyright be transferred to them so that they can lock up this valuable resource for their own profit, without returning any of that profit to the creators. This takes place every day, in all parts of the world.
University-based scholarship is a key player in the push for economic growth and human progress. While we strive to remain friendly to all channels for disseminating research, we have to take appropriate actions on our own to insure that our IP assets have the greatest possible impact. Therefore, effective immediately, we will limit the rights that we are willing to transfer to you in the scholarly products produced on our campuses.