Anthropological growing pains

Last week’s announcement by the American Anthropological Association that it was moving it journals and database (AnthroSource) from the stewardship of the University of California Press to the more commercial hands of Wiley/Blackwell publishers has caused a lot of outrage and hand-wringing. There is a comprehensive blog post about the announcement here at Georgia State University and an excellent article in Inside Higher Education here.

The most important point that is made by the Inside Higher Ed. article is that this news should be seen in context. Alongside the Anthropology announcement the article also notes the recent decision by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the nations second largest funder of bio-medical research, to join BioMed Central in order to make it even easier for the researchers it funds to place their articles in open access journals. It is tempting to see the Anthropologist’s decision as unmitigated bad news, but it is really just part of the growing pains as we move toward new forms of scholarly communications.

Several possible explanations of the move to Wiley/Blackwell have been circulating. Some people see the decision as a hardening of the line against open access taken when the Association came out in opposition to the Federal Public Research Access Act (and to many of its own members who support that initiative). Others interpret this as an economic move; more money will presumably be available to pay editors and support Association activities, although it may mean that less “commercial” research gets even less attention. A third way of looking at the decision is as just another contretemps in a highly dysfunctional organization. A blog post at Savage Minds tries to sort out these different interpretations and help us see that they are not at all mutually exclusive.

All scholarly societies are facing difficult choices these days. The same economic pressures that worry libraries – spiraling costs from commercial publishers, more journal outlets every day and consolidation of the ownership of those outlets – threaten the societies that have traditional published a great deal of their own research. Joining the march toward commercialization may not seem like the best or most far-sighted solution on the part of the AAA, but it is understandable.

Far more productive, however, given the similar situation of societies and libraries, would be cooperative innovation to find new means of disseminating scholarship. Most everyone recognizes the problems we are facing; many voices, including many within the AAA are beginning to call for all those interested in the future of scholarship to talk together and think creatively about the long term sustainability of scholarly communications. The AAA has chosen a quick and short-sighted fix that will not make the problem go away; it is hoped that more creative long-term solutions await.

Why we need to collaborate.

The report from Ithaka on “University Publishing in the Digital Age” is almost a month old now, but I have delayed commenting about it until I had a chance to read it thoroughly. The report’s principal author was Laura Brown, a former president of Oxford University Press USA, so it is clearly written from inside knowledge of the university publishing industry, and the report subjects the roles of both university presses and libraries to careful scrutiny in the context of the changes taking place in scholarly communications.

University presses are criticized in the report for being slow to adapt to digital media, clinging instead to traditional models of business and distribution that are rapidly becoming out-of-date. Presses have also done a poor job of aligning themselves with the academic priorities of their parent institutions and demonstrating to those institutions that publishing is itself a core function of a university. University presses, however, show important strengths in selecting and editing quality material, developing an elaborate network for credentialing scholarly work and understanding the markets for the work they publish.

These strengths and weaknesses of university presses are the mirror image of the pluses and minuses found in university libraries, according to the report. Libraries recognized the importance of digital media early on – often pulled toward that recognition by the demands of users – and have maintained a consistently mission-focused position at the center of the university enterprise. They often have done a poor job, however, at selecting and evaluating material to be placed in digital collections; such collections are likened to attics where all too frequently random and unsorted materials are found, chosen apparently for availability and lack of obstacles like copyright restrictions rather than from a sound evaluation of the “market” need.

In view of how complimentary these flaws and strengths are, the most important recommendation that the Itaka report makes is that universities need not only to “remain actively involved in publishing scholarship,” but to recognize the strategic importance of developing a comprehensive framework to support a dynamic and multi-faceted system of scholarly communications. Only an institutional vision and commitment, the report suggests, can take advantage of the collaborative possibilities suggested by its analysis.

Clearly this report has generated, and will continue to generate, lots of discussion. There are overall descriptions and assessments of the report from Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Amongst the blogs, the most interesting to me have been the comments at if:book and Media Commons that point out what the report does not address – the changes that will be needed in how universities understand authority and scholarly credentialing as we move to the more flexible digital world, where work can be subjected to comment and criticism long before it is submitted for formal publication.

Can Google inherit quality?

That is the question posed by Paul Duguid, a professor at UC Berkeley, the University of London and Santa Clara University, about the Google Books Project. His article, “Inheritance and loss? A brief survey of Google Books” was just published in First Monday, a peer-reviewed online journal about the Internet.

Duguid’s point is that the Google Books project will really outstrip most other projects to digitize cultural artifacts, making them “appear inept or inadequate.” But the authority and quality of the Google project, Duguid argues, is based on a kind of inheritance from the reputation of the libraries involved. So Duguid sets out to see if Google really is the qualitative heir of Harvard and Stanford.

His results are disheartening. His search for a deliberately unconventional book, Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” returns results likely to confuse and discourage a casual reader. The first result on Google’s results list, a copy from Harvard, is so badly scanned that it is virtually illegible, with words cut off by the gutter on nearly every line. Elsewhere the text fades to indecipherable scratchings. And some of Sterne’s eccentricities are missing; the black page of mourning for the dead Parson Yorick simply is not included in the Google scan. When Duguid tries the second result from his search, things get worse. The first page of the scan is blank and the second page puts the reader at the end of chapter 0ne and the beginning of chapter 2 — of the second volume. Nothing informs the reader (other than comparison with a printed text) that they have been plunged into the middle of the book.

Duguid’s judgments on Google Books are harsh: the project ignores essential metadata like volume numbers, the quality of the scans are often inadequate, and sometimes editions that are best consigned to oblivion are given undeserved prominence for no discernible reason (that is his conclusion regarding the second text he found, from Stanford). Rather than inheriting quality from Harvard and Stanford, he concludes, “Google threatens not only its own reputation for quality and technological sophistication, but also those of the institutions that have allied themselves to the project.”

It is true that the real value of the Google Books Project is not so much to find reading matter for people as to direct them to which books are most likely to be of help or interest to them.  Few people, one presumes, will try to read “Tristram Shandy” in the Google Books format.  But the failures of visual quality and metadata control threaten even the more modest view of Google Books as a giant index.  Without a higher degree of quality than Duguid discovered, it is hard to argue that Google is superior in any way to a comprehensive online catalog from a major library

Yale says no to an OA flavor

The announcement this week that Yale University will no longer maintain its membership in BioMed Central is another example of the growing pains involved as scholar publishing adapts itself to new business models and forms of distribution.

BioMed Central is an open access publisher that relies on author fees and institutional memberships to pay the cost of online publishing. The resulting 180 peer-reviewed electronic journals are freely available to all users. But open access is not free, and Yale decided to withdraw its institutional membership, which covered the fees for all articles published in BioMed Central journals by Yale authors, because the price was getting too high. In one sense, this is good news for open access publishing; it means that lots of authors from this prestigious university are publishing in BioMed Central journals. Clearly quality, peer-reviewed scholarship is compatible with open access. In its response to the news from Yale, BioMed Central points out that costs have risen because the journals have grown and asserts that, on a cost-per-article basis, its journals still represent good value.

Open access based on author fees is an important aspect of the movement toward new models of scholarly publishing, but it is just one model of how OA can be accomplished. The Yale decision offers a good chance to comment on the variety of publishing models with which authors and publishers are experimenting by pointing out this article on “The Nine Flavours of Open Access Scholarship” by John Willinsky, which is itself published in an open access journal. Willinsky categorizes the various flavors (his spelling is different because he is a Canadian), including the “author fees” model and the “dual mode” model practiced by the Journal of Post Graduate Medicine, which published his article. This brief article is also a good introduction to Willinsky’s superb monograph on “The Access Principle,” where he develops the economic, social and scholarly arguments for open access and also expands his list to include ten “flavours.” Yale is not happy with the economics of one particular kind of OA (although it is keeping its membership in the Public Library of Science, another important OA publisher using author’s fees), but there are many more options to experiment with.

UPDATE — Presumably BioMed Central is feeling better these days, with the announcement (August 20) that the second largest funder of biomedical research in the US, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has joined BMC and will pay the costs for publishing all the research articles it funds in open access form.

Taking a defense on the offensive

Technically, copyright misuse is a defense that has been recognized in the federal courts but is not codified in our copyright law. In a misuse claim, if a copyright owner is found to be claiming more copyright protection than the law gives, that owner may be barred from enforcing any copyright protection until they stop making the exaggerated claim. Someone sued for infringement can raise the defense that the copyright owner has claimed too much and a court may find that even genuine infringement should be excused on that basis.

In a recent complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, however, a computer industry group took the copyright misuse defense and went on the offensive. The Computer & Communications Industry Association has filed a complaint with the FTC alleging that the National Football League, Major League Baseball, NBC/Universal and several other large content producers are engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices by claiming copyright protection they are not entitled to. One example, discussed earlier on this site, is the copyright warning read on sports broadcasts that claims to prohibit “accounts and descriptions of this game” without written permission from the sports organizations. In spite of this dire warning, the NFL cannot prevent a water-cooler discussion of last night’s game; accounts and descriptions of the facts of the event are fine unless they are “substantially similar” to copyrighted expression, and even repeating the words of a broadcast description may be fair use, which, by definition, is permitted without authorization.

What the CCIA essentially is complaining about is copyright misuse – exaggerated claims designed to intimidate consumers and prevent them from doing things they are perfectly free to do under the law. On offense it is called an unfair trade practice; on defense it would be copyright misuse. But whichever side of the ball we are on, the idea that copyright claims can be overstated is important; consumers and users should understand the genuine contours of copyright protection and take full advantage of the educational and creative uses that the law does permit.

Read an Electronic Freedom Foundation blog post on the filing here.

For those who are interested, you can find the complete complain here.


The Creative Commons, the organization behind the increasingly-ubiquitous Creative Commons licenses, has recently announced the formation of a new division, CCLearn. The stated goal of CCLearn is to minimize the legal, technical and social barriers that impede the sharing and reuse of educational materials.

Towards this end, one of the activities of CCLearn will be to encourage those who create educational resources to make them available free of legal and technical barriers that discourage adaptation and creative reuse. The Creative Commons license, by which creators can waive their copyright claims as long as their works are used for non-profit educational purposes, is a major tool toward creating such “open educational resources.” So a major initiative of CCLearn will be to encourage those who create education resource to employ CC license or some similar mechanism to communicate their desire to share those resources with the educational community.

Equally important, of course, is the ability to find resources that are made openly available for educational purposes. An important aspect of CCLearn will be its Open Education Search, a tool that “aims to direct search engine traffic to the incredible diversity of OER repositories and communities.” This tool should make it much easier for faculty members to find resources they can use in their classes without having to worry about copyright concern. It is a frequent and bitter observation that our system of copyright law does not accommodate the needs of education very well, even as it relies on institutions of higher education for much of the material that populates that system. Careful attention as CCLearn develops its open education search tool is called for; it promises a system that could offer both a potential solution to some of these copyright problems and an immense resource for creative approaches to teaching.

Hybrid journals and the transition to OA

When colleges and universities first started talking about scholarly communications over a decade ago, the context for those conversations was often the so-called “serials pricing crisis.”  Our notions about the system of scholarly communications is now considerably broader and more inclusive now, but the problem of spiraling costs for traditional material is still with us.  One of the knottiest questions is whether, and how, open access to scholarly publications might address that problem of high costs.

As many publishers develop hybrid models of journal publishing – where much of the journal content, print or digital, is still available only upon subscription but some proportion of that content is freely available online because the authors have paid a special “supply-side” fee to make their work open access – many librarians question how such supply side income will impact traditional subscription rates.  The issue of how we can transition library budgets away from a focus on subscriptions toward a dual focus, where author side fees might be underwritten by the institutions, is a trick and difficult one.  Subvention of such author fees is really a more efficient use of the money we spent to support scholarly communications, providing much greater access than institutional subscriptions can, but it is hard to see how we can move that very limit supply of dollars toward such subventions as long as subscription rates continue to climb.

The recent announcement from Oxford Press that they are adjusting the online-only subscription rates to their Oxford Open journals suggests a step forward toward making this difficult transition.  Oxford is discounting some subscriptions to reflect the income received from its “open choice” option that lets authors pay for open access.  As Heather Morrison notes in her “Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics” blog posting, this announcement illustrates one step in the “potential positive spiral in the transition to open access.”  

Advertisements, elitism and open access

One of the joys of blogging is the opportunity to relate issues and news items that do not seem to have an obvious connection. Here the only connection is that both involve SSRN — the Social Science Research Network, an open access depository for articles in the social sciences that is a wonderful resource on policy and legal issues.

First I came across this complaint, on a law professor’s blog, about the presence of Google advertisements in SSRN and the odd juxtapositions those ads sometimes create with the content of the paper. Specifically, Professor Leiter reports on a paper dealing sympathetically with a recent labor dispute at a university that was framed with ads for organizations that purported to help keep campuses union-free. The author was, not surprisingly, upset that his article would become the unintended vehicle for a point of view he does not support. Prof. Leiter also mention the uncomfortable relationship some ads seem to have with his own article on religion and law.

One of the realities of open access, of course, is that someone has to pay for the server space, upkeep, and the like. SSRN has a complex funding model that includes deposit fees, institutional subscriptions and — here is the rub — advertisements. Do the advantages of open access outweigh the discomfort that advertisements accompanying scholarly work can cause? I think they do, but read on.

Another recent article in SSRN broadens the question raised by these advertisements to an issue of gatekeeping and elitism. In “Evaluate me! Conflicted thoughts on gatekeeping and legal scholarships new age,” Paul Horowitz explicitly raises the question of how much open access to scholarship disrupts the traditional function of publication to certify and validate scholars and scholarship. Much open access material, of course, has already been peer-reviewed and accepted through the traditional channels of scholarship. But there is a whole new form of scholarly communications out there — informal discussion on blogs and listservs that are often the midwife of formal scholarship. Some may see this as a threat to traditional forms of evaluation and quality control; advertisements seem like a tangible reminder of that threat. But others will see informal and open web communications as a renewal of creativity and an opportunity to democratize the process of scholarship as well as its results. What do you think?

Friday’s bad news

UPDATE — What a difference a weekend makes! According to the Chronicle of Higher Education today (Wednesday), Senator Reid has withdrawn the proposed amendment after intense lobbying from the high ed. community. The issue, of course, has not gone away, and lawmakers seem determined to continue to pressure universities as if they were the primary source of this problem, which they are not. But at least this very bad idea has been abandoned for now.

The down side of the news on Friday was an announcement, and an urgent appeal for action, from EDUCAUSE, about the intention of Senator Harry Reid to offer an amendment to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act that would put a grossly unfair burden on a few universities to address illegal file sharing; a burden no other online service provider would share.

Senator Reid’s amendment (there is a report on it here from the Chronicle of Higher Education) would require that 25 institutions identified each year by the music industry to the Secretary of Education, based on the number of copyright infringement notices sent to those schools, adopt a “technology-based deterrent to prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.” Now, everyone agrees that sharing copyright protected music and video over P2P networks is illegal and ought to be discouraged, but this amendment is clearly the wrong way to approach the problem.

First, colleges and universities are only a small part of the file-sharing problem. Even the content industries admit that nearly 3/4 of all file sharing takes place over commercial networks not affiliated with higher education. In fact, the higher education community is the only major group of online service providers that is now actively taking steps to reduce file-sharing on its networks. Why punish only those who are trying to prevent the activity and ignore the commercial providers? Why do the content industries continue to target higher ed and ignore AOL and Viacom, where the problem is much greater?

Second, the Secretary of Education is supposed to identify the 25 schools from information provided by the content industries. Thus a major financial burden could be created for institutions that have little way to anticipate being targeted or defend themselves from random selection. These notices are often inaccurate, and just counting them up and picking out the top recipients is and unfair, and unfunded, mandate that will do little to actually address the problem.

Finally, this proposal continues the trend in Congress of attempting to apply technological solutions to infringement problems. Unfortunately, every technological barrier quickly becomes a challenge that some programming whiz wants to defeat. The barriers fall as quickly as they are erected. So schools would be required to spend lots of money to implement solutions that can not realistically be expected to work for very long. These problems must be addressed with long-term market solutions, not with technological band-aids.

You can read a letter from EDUCAUSE about the proposed amendment here, and an article from Inside Higher Ed here. As the article notes, this amendment has not been offered yet, and the situation is “fluid.” So perhaps good sense will prevail on this issue, and troubling news can become an opportunity to educate our Congressman on the real facts about file sharing.

Friday’s good news

Last Friday was a day of both good news and bad news for higher education on the copyright front.

On the plus side, on Friday we learned that the House of Representatives passed, late Thursday night, a Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill that included language to make the public access policy for the National Institute of Health mandatory. What this means is that the published results of research funded by NIH grant monies would have to be made available to the public, whose tax dollars paid for the research, within one year of publication. The NIH offers the PubMed Central database for this purpose, and a small amount of research (compared to the total amount funded) has been made available under a voluntary program for the past three years. A mandatory policy will vastly increase public access to vital health information; the 12 month delay would ensure that subscriptions to the journals that publish these original articles would not be endangered.

This was only a small provision in a huge appropriations bill, but it is the first time a full branch of Congress has endorsed the principle of public access. Publishers lobbied hard against the change, for reasons that are hard to fathom (note — here is an article in which several representatives of the content industry express the reasons for their opposition), but Congress specifically passed over the opportunity to amend this provision. A similar bill, with the open access proviso, will soon be considered in the Senate. President Bush has threatened to veto the Appropriations bill because of disagreement over the amount of spending — not because of the public access rule — so it may be sometime before this mandate goes into effect. Nevertheless, a very significant first hurdle has been successfully cleared.

See a news release from the Alliance for Taxpayer Access here.

Our next post will discuss Friday’s bad news.

Discussions about the changing world of scholarly communications and copyright