Opening up library subscriptions to scholarly publications

The people at PHD comics have posted a video summarising the case for open access to scholarly publications.

It is a good summary of the issues and particularly salient as I spent yesterday at a Workshop that was looking into the economics of these issues.

One part of the video was interesting. It was about the experience of an unnamed person whose spouse was sick in a hospital and he wanted more information on her condition. He, of course, hit a paywall and then started paying. But each paper cost $30 and he didn’t know which ones would be useful.

The problem he faced was not the paywall; he was willing to pay. It was the structure of access. Had he been able to access a University library he could have searched and explored freely. But the fact that each article was priced separately crimped his search process.

But what if University libraries offered access to others for a fee? For instance, it may offer $50 per month access to all of their digital resources. It would track how those were used and may pay publishers whose resources are used more often a share of those access fees. In other words, what if scholarly publication was organised and paid for like public broadcast rights for copyrighted music but with University libraries acting like collecting agencies?

The rationale here is precisely the same. The reason prices are they way they are is that if you are searching for research chances are that research is contained in journals owned by distinct publishers. For the provision of a good search and explore product, there is, thus, an anti-comments problem and we need some organisations to step in to manage them. Why not pick organisations that have already solved that problem?

Now I realise that this isn’t a solution to all of the issues associated with access to scholarly publication. The issue of poor countries remains but many publishers have already offered open access solutions for researchers from those regions. But at least it is a step towards making what is really useful about scholarly research — the ability to search and explore — a product that is accessible.

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