Will open access open a Pandora’s box for scientific journals?
Should the content in scientific journals be made available to the public? There are unintended consequences to opening up copyrighted material, as evidenced by the many challenges facing the journalism business since Al Gore 'invented' the Internet.
When I was coming up in the journalism world, Al Gore hadn't"invented" the Internet quite yet. We counted headlines, banged out stories ontypewriters and pasted them onto graphic paper using rubber cement and kept theYellow Pages within arm's reach at all times. In fact, The Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper and my entrée into thiscrazy business, was in the process of installing fiber-optic lines by whichcontent would be transmitted from the newspaper's downtown location to its new$200 million printing and distribution facility in the suburbs—which wasconsidered to be start-of-the-art technology at the time.
For journalists, reporting on a story was hard work. Findinginteresting stories to report on and doing them justice was very much agrassroots effort. There were no Google, cell phones or e-mail. You had toliterally pound the pavement to get a story. You had to physically interact withyour sources. Bonnie Speed and 411 were your best friends.
While I sometimes miss the purity and simplicity of thosedays, technology has made my job easier and more efficient. It also helps toget content in front of more readers, delivered in a variety of ways designedto make life more manageable for those on the go. But despite the manypositives that today's technology offers, it's also cut the journalism businessat its knees in many respects.
Hardly a week goes by that a subscription representativefrom The Plain Dealer doesn't knockon doors in my neighborhood, encouraging us to pay to have the newspaperdelivered to our homes. That's because many would-be subscribers elect to viewnews content—for free—on the newspaper's website. Gone are the days where youwaited for the familiar "thwack" on your driveway and raced out to view theday's headlines. Now, you can hit the Internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,365 days a year to get news practically as it happens.
Technology has revolutionized the way we seek out our newsand what we expect from the people responsible for bringing it to us, but it'salso had some unintended consequences that someone should have predicted andtaken steps to prevent. With paid readership slumping, advertisers have beenshying away from print products. Newspaper budgets have been slashed, newsroompink slips have become de rigueur andsome of the most respected publishers in the nation have closed up shop. Worseyet, Average Joes with a laptops have proclaimed themselves "bloggers" who"report" the news—with no formal training or understanding of how to properlygather information, and sadly, often with an elementary grasp of properspelling and grammar.
So I found myself shaking my head at a recent report aboutHarvard University Law School Prof. Larry Lessig's campaign to make scientificarticles available to the general public instead of published insubscription-locked journals. Speaking to the European Organization for NuclearResearch (CERN) last month, Lessig—a political activist and proponent ofreduced legal restrictions on copyright and trademark—reportedly argued thatcopyright "chokes" creativity and inhibits the progress of science. Science,Lessig told CERN, is a field where Internet access is unnecessarily restrictedto privileged scholars. Copyright "architecture," he added, is "obsolete" andneeds to protect copyright as an essential tool for creation—with therecognition that sharing is at the core of the architecture of the Internet.
Questions about the copyright of scientific writings havebeen debated for a few years now, and Lessig has strong supporters. Those whodisagree with his arguments wonder how opening up access to this type ofcontent will affect its quality, and if the general public would actuallybenefit from having access to highly technical content.
They're right to ask these questions. While I don't have anopinion on where this debate should go, and the arguments being presented arematerially different from what's happened to the news business, I do believethe realities facing the journalism business today can serve as a valuableobject lesson for the questions being presented by Lessig. Most newspapersfailed to realize the impact that technology and the Internet would have on thequality of news reporting. As news organizations continued to invest inobsolete technology, consumers—with their rabid curiosity for newtechnology—changed the game. So let's ask smart questions and come up with aneffective game plan, before the clock runs out on us.