The Control Fallacy: Freedom isn't about prices, but about rights

From John Wilbanks, The Control Fallacy:  Why OA Out-Innovates the Alternative, Nature Precedings, a preprint deposited April 25, 2008.

Abstract:   This article examines the relationship between Open Access to the scholarly literature and innovation. It traces the ideas of “end to end” network principles in the Internet and the World Wide Web and applies them to the scholarly biomedical literature. And the article argues for the importance of relieving not just price barriers but permission barriers.

PMR: John (Science Commons) covers most of the main ground arguing the benefits of Open Access and Open Data. Science Commons goes beyond Open Access to cover data and other forms of Knowledge:

Lost in too much of the debate over Open Access (OA) is the relationship between
access, control, and innovation.
Too often, the OA discussion is one of radical polarization. Much of this comes, in my
opinion, from the focus of the debate on economics and business models. While the
money side of this is clearly vital – peer review needs to be paid for, after all – it’s also the
issue that often leads to the least constructive debate.

PMR: Yes. Control has often been neglected in comparison to access. I can remember a meeting ca 5 years ago at Cambridge on Open Access – almost all the arguments were about journal prices. I think I surprised a number of attendees by arguing that it was about control of our information.
John also promotes an analogy with renting…

Now, those publishers are happy to rent access to the knowledge heritage. Rent is the key
word here, though. When the scientific publishing industry went online, they stopped
selling journals to people and started renting them. If you’ve ever rented an apartment,
you know that rentals come with a lot fewer rights than ownership. In this context, the
users lost a slew of rights ­ remember, you can legally resell a physical copy of a book or
CD, but you can’t legally forward a PDF from the newest issue of Science. You don’t
have the right to share things like journal articles when you rent them.

PMR: The key point. It is surprising how few authors realise what they give away.

Many of the controls that a publisher can impose are built on top of that copyright. So
even if you have rented access to the full text of articles, the license agreements you’ve
signed with the owners frequently make it illegal to use software to index and mine the
literature. Elsevier’s copyright rental agreements are a good example ­ make sure to read
through to page 5.

This control culture is not the result of bad people making evil decisions. It’s simply an
antique system. It made sense when it started, and it actually made sense until the Internet
came along and changed everything. But the control culture is a powerful drag on
innovation when you’re in a networked reality.

PMR: We need to make this simple point repeatedly. Control leads to loss of innovation.

Complexity challenges coherence. Complexity overwhelms consistency. Quality control
can only scale as the people scale, and in closed systems, all of those people must
somehow be paid by the same paymaster. Closed systems and cultures of control simply
don’t work as well as open systems in complex, rapidly shifting environments.

That’s why access is so vital. That’s why it’s vital to support the publishers that go OA,
and the traditional publishers who are taking bold steps to foster innovation and
knowledge creation. That’s why it’s important to focus on access and rights and not price
­ because giving knowledge away for free but without the rights to make it useful doesn’t
make the grade. Freedom here isn’t about prices, but about rights. (PMR emphasis)

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One Response to The Control Fallacy: Freedom isn't about prices, but about rights

  1. Rich Apodaca says:

    By identifying and executing the right business model, the idea of control will become much less important. For example, you’ll find few complaints about Google essentially controlling the online search market; the vast majority of users are delighted to be able to search with the service whenever they want – and to have Google index their site.
    This only happened because Google found the right business model and executed on it.
    Maybe open access pricing and business models bring out nonproductive arguments because those putting them forward (and responding) are stuck in old patterns of thinking, or too heavily dependent on the current system. Scholars and publishers likely both share responsibility here.
    My guess is that the open access scientific publication system that ends up working will start out by horrifying most of today’s scholars and being ridiculed or ignored by today’s publishers. But there will be a few niche groups for whom the truly disruptive open access innovation in scientific publishing will be a godsend.
    Developing a workable open access business model starts by identifying who these groups are and how solving their problem can solve other important problems. It continues with finding a price and medium of exchange (perhaps not even money) that the market will find tolerable for awhile.
    How can this issue be anything other than central to making open access work?

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