More on the problem of excessive accessibility
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
April 15, 2002
by Peter Suber
The problem of excessive accessibility arises when somebody thinks certain information should be hard to find, even if by law or policy it has to be made public or available to those who need it.  In past issues I've covered the problem as it arises for criminal records (FOSN for 10/12/01), court records (FOSN for 11/26/01), phone numbers (FOSN for 1/8/02), and information that might be useful to terrorists (esp. FOSN for 11/26/01).  It doesn't arise often for literature and scholarship, but this week it arose twice.

* The Authors Guild is complaining that Amazon sells used books on the same page as new books.  The problem is that used books generate no royalties for their authors, and because they cost less shoppers occasionally buy them.  However, authors love used book stores, and I've never heard of an author vowing not to buy used copies of books that might still be in print.  What the Authors Guild is really protesting, then, is that Amazon is making used book buying too easy.,1367,51676,00.html

This is the second time around between the Authors Guild and Amazon.  Here's the first (December 2000).

For the purposes of this controversy, it doesn't matter whether we consider links to be information, protected as free speech, or transactions, subject to regulation, even though this distinction is important e.g. for the DeCSS case.  The Authors Guild shouldn't be protesting Amazon's used-book links whether they are construed as ads for used books or as miniature used book stores.  Does it protest when used book stores move next door to new book stores?  What if a new book store adds a wing of used books?  If the Authors Guild doesn't object to the first-sale doctrine (which creates a legal market for used books), and doesn't object to selling used books in proximity to new books until the convenience for buyers becomes "excessive", then it is clearly protesting competition and nothing else.

* This week a discussion thread started in the American Scientist ("September98") forum on the question whether the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) is harmful to society publishers.  Sally Morris for the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) argues that society journals are not threatened when authors put their articles on their own home pages, but that posting articles to OAI-compliant archives is "considerably more alarming".  The reason is that making the articles "organized and cross-searchable" makes them excessively accessible.  Readers will bypass journals, which will make the journals disappear along with all the "added value" they provide.

Sally Morris against the OAI

Stevan Harnad's reply to Morris

* Postscript.  From the standpoint of the Authors Guild, Amazon does make used books excessively accessible, and from the standpoint of priced journals, open-access archives do make articles excessively accessible.  If "excess" is judged by the revenues of existing businesses, then the charge is warranted.  But in both cases, someone is offering easier accessibility in order to serve readers --and in the case of scholarly journals, also authors.  If "excess" is judged from their standpoint, then accessibility can never be wide enough or easy enough; excess is impossible.  So the question isn't whether someone is losing money, but whether the interests of sellers must trump the interest of buyers.  Should existing technologies carry a veto over new technologies, existing business models over future business models, existing beneficiaries over future beneficiaries?  Obviously the same questions come up in the P2P swapping of music and video files, though in both the Amazon and OAI cases the questions do not carry the complication of copyright troubles.

When we're talking about a lawful and even valuable form of information flow, then when is easy access too easy?  There seem to be two very different cases in which someone might object that a certain degree of access to information is excessive.  The first is when easy accessibility helps criminals, invades privacy, or deters citizens from socially beneficial practices like testifying in court.  (We omit the case of infringing copyright because that isn't a lawful form of information flow.)  The second is when easy accessibility harms someone's bottom line.  In the first case, we can at least acknowledge that there might be rights on both sides.  In response, we can at least investigate whether reasonable compromises exist.  But the second case is very different.  When the strong right to exchange lawful information conflicts only with existing revenue models, there is no reason to compromise.

Society journals would make two additional arguments at this point:  that the survival of journals is necessary for the survival of peer review, and that society journals are not just commercial concerns, but that their revenues subsidize the important activities of the professional societies that stand behind them.

The answers to these additional arguments can be very brief.  FOS doesn't jeopardize peer review at all, but only peer review performed by priced journals.  If the objection shifts to the claim that journals must be priced in order to have the means to support peer review, then the reply is simply that the claim is false, as shown every day by a growing number of journals in every discipline.

It's true that non-profit society publishers deserve more deference from academics than for-profit publishers.  Society publishers use any revenues beyond expenses for valuable academic projects.  But both kinds of publisher erect price-barriers that limit access to research literature, and therefore both impede the growth and circulation of knowledge.  Both compromise what is primary for academics in order to promote something else, and it really doesn't matter much whether their alternative good is secondary or tertiary.

As Edwin Shelock (past chair of the ALPSP) put it in the October 2001 _Learned Publishing_, learned societies should act less like commercial publishers and more like their own members.  "Are learned society publishers so much part of commercial publishing now that they take the same attitude to the potential disturbance of the business of publishing as do the commercial publishers who are in it primarily to provide distributed profit for their shareholders?  Are the learned society publishers divorced from their societies to the extent that they have a different agenda from the society members?"

As the BOAI FAQ puts it, "We believe that the opportunity created by the internet for open access to peer-reviewed research literature should be seized even if the revenue from priced editions of this literature supports good causes.  If a significant public good can be made available free of charge, then it shouldn't be priced simply to subsidize another good.  If the second good is worthy, there must be some other way to support it."


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