(Bloomington, IN) The category of “scholarly communications” includes books and journal articles; datasets, maps, images, and software; and informal exchanges such as discussions at meetings, emails, blogs, gossip, and even resumes and letters of recommendation. Almost all of this material can now be digitized and stored perpetually for anyone to use. Knowledge is a “non-rivalrous” good; if I take some, there isn’t less for you. In fact, it is often cumulative: knowledge is worth more the more it is used, and each item becomes more valuable the more other items are also available. Thus knowledge can function as a “commons,” a public resource. On the other hand, there are problems. The main one is probably the “provisioning problem”: finding a way to pay for, or otherwise encourage, the creation of free goods.
It’s easy to envision better forms of scholarly communications than we have today. For example, imagine that journals gave their articles away free online. They’d have to cover editorial and electronic-storage costs, but imagine that they charged their prospective authors submission fees–and universities and funders covered those fees for their own employees/grantees. The total cost to universities would be much lower than under the current system, in which academic libraries pay expensive journal subscriptions. Moreover, anyone with an Internet connection could get free access to all the published information.
But–how can we move from our current system to this superior one? At present, every university must subscribe to major journals; and every budding scholar must submit his or her best articles to the same prestigious publications. Universities cannot easily come up with more money to pay submission fees to new “open-access” electronic journals. Besides, if they do pay submission fees, then other universities will benefit from the free scholarship without paying.
This is just one collective-action problem. Consider another: If scholars, universities and/or publishers post free online copies of copyrighted articles (as I do on this site), then who is responsible for keeping these copies online at stable addresses for the long term? How will this be paid for?
Peter Suber runs an excellent blog on these questions.