Where Libraries can learn from Software – Definitions of ‘Free’.

The Finch Report was released, and yea! there was much confusion and gnashing of teeth!  While the Babylon still reigned and its whore the Evil Seer ravaged the research grants of the faithful, there was bickering and snarling amongst the Journal-holders and the Repositarians as to who was the true defenders of Faith!  Babies were thrown out with the bathwater, and impolitenesses committed on listservs!

A few email list conversations over the last few days convince me that some distinctions about ‘open’ and ‘free’ that are common in software development might be handy tools for us to use in the current scholarly communication discussion.  As Info professionals we know language is a damn tricky thing, so lets borrow from some people that have trod this path in a systematic way before.

Open V. Free.

This is an ideological distinction.  Personally I think its a political one that compares liberalism with libertarianism.  Both of these perspectives think that you should be able to do what you like, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s right to do what they like.  The difference is that libertarians suggest that a lack of rules is the way to manage that, and liberals think that rules are what makes the games fun (to quote Monica from Friends).  Honestly the upshot is pretty much the same for the end user: they get to access information with as few barriers as possible.

If you want to read a more nuanced perspective on what is really the Stallman v. Raymond debate, you can check out a paper I wrote a while back (ostensibly on Zotero).  Lets just say I fall on the side of Open – the liberal end of the spectrum.  I tend to think most Librarians do as well.

There are varieties of free:

Free as in beer.
This means that the end user doesn’t pay for use of the information, and the author doesn’t have to pay for having it published.  Technically, this is Green OA; but there are costs in everything, so see “Free as in kittens” below….
Free as in speech.
This is about licensing.  Scholarly communication should be freely available to anyone to do what they like with, as long as the give an appropriate tip of the hat to the people who created the knowledge in the first place. However, this is where most confusion reigns – journals license items from Creative Commons Zero (CC0) where you can do what you like through the the totally egregious terms of someone like Harvard Business Review on EBSCO where you can’t even link to an item in the database from your own course packs even if you have a subscription.  Repositories vary, from all rights reserved, which lets people use the work for study, but not much else, to Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY).  
Notice there is not much about money in the above: this specie of freedom is about what you can do with the item, which you might have had to pay for.  Open means you don’t have to pay for it, but there is a tangled ball of licence knitting sitting  behind it all even still.
Free as in kittens
We all know that even if kittens come free, you still have to pay for all sorts of stuff for them.  This notion is a nuanced concept of ‘free as in beer’, as the servers behind any online activity need to be fed, watered and occasionally taken to the vet. In fact, that’s what I do for a living.  There is a useful distinction to be made between those who want to make a profit from that maintenance activity, and those who don’t. 

How does software development help us understand scholarly communications?

Software is like a journal article – someone has to produce it.  They can do it for fun – and that should never be discounted – but more likely they get paid to do it.  In the case of academic work, that’s more likely to be the state through an academic institution, as the business case for paying a software developer is usually more obvious.   How can software developers get paid to give stuff away for free?  There are a large number of ways to manage this – either the software is integral to your business, and having people develop and support it in house means you have some control over it (think of Apache, the web server that let you read this in the first place) or its subsidised through advertising (Facebook, phone apps) it is funded by academic institutions (Zotero), or through paid support and consultancy (Ubuntu, mySQL until recently).

In the case of Scholarly Communications there is a complex distribution mechanism that requires a deep level of review that adds value to the final product.  This is where the money is to be made.  Selecting appropriate material, suggesting revisions, and then hosting it all costs, and in an economics of scarcity can acquire fees.  Here’s the thing: what has become scarce is no longer the information, but the time with which to read it.  I no longer want to pay money for access to good information, but to have good information weeded out and presented to me.  It goes from a commodity, to a service, just like software has.  You don’t pay for an operating system or a word processor, you pay for a subscription to a service – that’s why they are becoming all ‘cloudy’.

So, here’s the crux – toll based journals cannot be open, because they require payment to access information.  Gold “open” access cannot be free, because payment is required to make it open.  People want to pay for a service to get good info delivered, not for access to everything (because they now pretty much expect that, and for free, and that’s not unreasonable).

Where the money to be made, and its not much in transaction terms, but its a heap in volume, is in providing editorial services.  Profits are there to be had, but you’ll have to compete with non-profits who may be able to provide as good, if not better a service.

If all scholarly communication is initially published open and free (as in kittens and as in speech, as part of the funding for producing it in the first place) there is a space for editorial groups to weed, request improvements, and provide feeds of The Good Stuff.  I’d pay for that – or maybe my institution would, or even have it funded by organisations or corporations who want to be associated with high quality information, for whatever reason, and it can be free as well.

Those editorial groups already exist – they’re called journals.  New ones can spring into existence as quickly as they like, and hosting services like PeerJ or any university who wants to throw up a wordpress instance with annotum, or Open Journal Server (if they like whipping themselves with stingy things).  Or a twitter feed.  Or Google Plus circles.  Whatever.

And so they went forth and published mightily, but for free, and the Repositarians delighted in opening up everything to the glory of the world’s minds, and the Editorialists plucked what they saw was good, and raised it to the notice of the Academy, and were rewarded.  All was good, and knowledge flourished, and departmental meetings went smoothly and on time for the rest of eternity.

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