Blog Post

Information Wants To Be Sustainable

NB:   On March 18, 2010, Duke's Academic Council voted unanimously to accept our recommendation for an Open Access policy at Duke.  My opinion on this, as co-chair of the Digital Futures Task Force, is below and the details of the plan can be found here:

Next goal:   take on commercial publishers who charge exhorbitant fees for their subscriptions, absorbing library budgets and necessitating cutbacks of subscriptions to small journals, literary journals, and university presses!   Now, below, my original blog, "Information Wants To Be Sustainable."




I'm an odd choice, come to think of it, to co-chair Duke's Open Access policy, which is to say I'm the perfect choice.  I've spent the last decade promoting open source, advocating strongly for Creative Commons licensing (as is all on the HASTAC site), and, at the same time, being hardnosed when people say things like "electronic publishing doesn't cost anything because information is free."  (Really? I ask.  Maybe if your metric is days, not years or decades or centuries, but platforms can cost lots more to update and maintain than paperbacks. And "free" has a different ring to it, I add, when you are the consumer versus when you are the artist producing. I feel a bit presumptuous telling people who live by their writing that they'll somehow, magically, make more money in the free economy of the Internet, not less. Sometimes that happens.  I know all the examples by heart.  Sure.  But the jury's still out in all cases, and I don't like systems predicated on giving away the fruits of other people's labor.)  I would love information to be free; I blog almost every day and no one pays me to do it, and no one requires me to do it.  That's fine.   But, in many instances, I'm skeptical of free consumption when someone else is paying for the production, and so my rallying cry is something closer to "Information Wants To Be Sustainable."   


Fortunately, my co-chair on the Digital Futures Taskforce at Duke is Paolo Mangiafico, an Open Access evangelist in a moderate sort of way, and the faculty and staff on our Digital Futures Task Force range over the whole spectrum of opinions on this issue from the cautiously pragmatic to the passionate, wild-eyed Information-Wants-To-Be-Free-Thinkers. We also have all the shareholders present:  faculty from all over the university, staff from the library,  from the communications end of campus, from Duke University Press.  That range of opinions  and perspectives is a good thing in this transitional time.  It means we have weighed options very carefully over the last six months.  And we are all of us, no matter what our position on free information, aware that there is no crystal ball.  No one knows exactly what to expect of the future of publishing.  Everyone realizes that, whatever policy we propose, we're likely to need to revise it in three years to address whatever comes next in the digital future.


Good thing, then, that this wise taskforce is proposing a policy to be in place for three years, to be evaluated and assessed, and then to be reconsidered for the next three years, based on how the information landscape has changed by then. 


My own idea is that Information Wants to Be Free is about as supportable as the Free Lunch---as in "There's no such thing as a free lunch."   By that I mean that, as with the proverbial free lunch, free information is never really cost-free.   On the most basic level, there are labor and environmental and opportunity costs--and other costs too--that go along with the inarguable and inestimable benefits of free-flowing information.  More than that, anyone who thinks such things as a Google search of the Web is "free," is, to put it bluntly, a fool.   Any multibillion dollar global corporation that mines your data even as you supply more and more of it with every search is not supplying you with anything for free, no matter how much you may believe that to be the case.   And certainly the laptop or desktop or smart phone from which you are accessing the Web is not free, nor is that monthly data plan.   Nor are all the pipes required to sustain that adorable device with all the apps that lives so comfortably in the palm of your hand (and needs to be sync'd to your institutional email and all the rest).  


So, given my skepticism about the cost of "free," what does Duke's proposed Open Access policy look like and why am I supporting it so vehemently?


At this writing, we propose that the final draft of any article written by a Duke faculty member--not the printed article but the draft before it goes to press--be made available in pdf form and archived in a repository at Duke where it will be available to search engines and therefore to any searcher, yes, for free. This means that the fruits of our collective research can be made available to the world, even if the actual citational final paginaged publication copyright will still reside with the publisher.  With  modifications offered by Duke faculty in the various forums and committees to which we've now presented this policy, our Open Access policy is roughly similar to the ones already accepted at Harvard, Stanford, MIT, the University of Kansas, and a number of other public and private institutions.  It is both modest in its scope and important.   It allows faculty to use their own work in their classes; a member of our Taskforce in the Medical School reported that she was having to pay $500 for permission to use her own published article in her teaching.   Recently, I took my class to visit the lab of a colleague and assigned several of his articles, listed on his website.  We clicked.  No article.  The publisher had made him take the links down.  My students were able to go through Duke University library to read these scientific papers but, if they had not been institutional members, they would have had to pay-per-view for each article, all of them written on grants that our tax payer dollars had supported.   An Open Access repository at Duke also means that the work of faculty can be included in online searches by topic and that readers can find the work easily and read it in the pdf form even if they do not have an individual or institutional subscription to the journal.  They will still need to go to the actual journal (the printed final copy of the article) for proper citations, but presumably there are many people who will want to read an essay even if they aren't planning on citing it in their own work.  


Faculty members benefit from open access because it allows us to share our work more widely.  Some studies of citations suggest that papers previously published in this preprint open access form are more likely to be cited than essays that are not available in this form, even when citation requires taking that extra step of going to the actual published journal to cite the paginated essay.  In addition, the policy guarantees the future archiving of the article.  So there are many benefits to the faculty member.   However, if a faculty member has any hesitation at all about this method of open access archiving for any reason, there is also a "no explanation necessary" escape clause available to any faculty member who wants out.  If you don't want your article archived in an open access repository, you don't have to have it archived.  No questions ask.  If you do, however, you can be assured that Duke will preserve it even if your journal collapses or sells its archives to some expensive commercial vendor.  


So there seems to be considerable benefit to the scholar and to readers.  Because of the escape clause, there's no real down side that I can see for authors and readers.   But here's another reason why I like it:  About 80% of journal publishers approve of this policy too. Many already have such policies in their copyright agreements.  We've found that the journals most likely to protest tend to be the price-gouging commercial presses like Elsevier that are so devastating to the ecology of scholarly publishing right now. 


Information, in the hands of commercial publishers and packages, is both lock-box and expensive to the point of intellectual extortion.   One of the visitors to our DFTF told us that, right now, a major institutional library with which she is affiliated spends less than 3% of its annual acquisitions budget on university press publications because of how much is spent on commercial journal packages like those offered by Elsevier.  There isn't much left over for scholarly book publishing or even for specialized journal publishing in the humanities and interpretive social sciences.  An official at Duke's library said that 3% figure would just about be true here at Duke too and  she added that we spend about a million a year on these commrercial journal subscriptions and, eleven miles down the road, UNC spends the same.  Sharing isn't allowed.  Use is incredibly restricted.  My own former Duke students can't even use these journals because the use-agreements are so restrictive.  That makes my blood boil.  In this amazing Information Age, when so many riches (and garbage too) are available on the Web, that scholarship is tied up in proprietary and highly expensive knots makes me very angry.


At the same time, I edited a journal for a decade and I believe in both journal and scholarly book publishing and I don't want anything to hurt it.  I myself happen to write equally for scholarly and for popular audiences.   But nearly everything I write for a trade audience is based on extensive reading in the specialized journals of many fields across the sciences (especially neurobiological, cognitive science, and computational science), the full range of qualitative and quantitative social sciences, and the human sciences.  We would all live in a far more impoverished intellectual world without the hard work, the peer review, and the careful presentation of scholarship that is, after all, "free," in the sense that it is written without regard for turning a profit.  Thank goodness so many scholars believe, in that sense, that their information should be freely available and is worth writing even without direct remuneration.  


On the other hand, it costs a lot to produce books and journals and, at most universities, scholarly publishing is already subsidized by the university itself.   To take away its very modest sources of revenue (such as radically declining library budgets because of those commercial journals) puts an even greater burden on those universities that do subsidize scholarly publishing--journals and books--for the rest of the world.   Here, the adage shouldn't be "information is free."  That's inaccurate.  It is "information is philanthropy."   By which I mean that anyone who reads a scholarly journal or book and who is not contributing to its costs is actually the recipient of a gift that someone else is paying for.   It isn't remotely free.   In this time of cutbacks all over higher education, that concerns me.  


So I am pleased that, even if our proposed Open Access policy isn't quite "free" in the most idealistic and expansive sense of the end-to-end principle championed by Tim Berners-Lee when he envisioned a World Wide Web, in this much-embattled transitional time, it does seem to be sustainable.  That is, this highly limited, institution-based Open Access policy seems to be acceptable to journal publishers who understand that (a) the kind of casual browser in scholarly publishing who would be happy reading a pdf instead of the final, finished version of an article is not likely to subscribe to a journal anyway, and the work produced in scholarly journals is of sufficient value that it deserves to have this wider audience; this limited form of open access  is a scholarly gift, a public good that higher education can offer as a gift to the general public; and (b) if you are a professional scholar and you need to cite the actual article in your own work, then you are the target subscriber of the journal and, well, at this moment in history, it's part of your professional "share" to subscribe to or be part of an institution that subscribes to the journal in question.   That is, if you have a professional need to read and to cite the final, copyedited printed version with pagination, etc., then perhaps paying for the journal (individually, through grants, or institutionally), is, at this historical moment, necessary.  You or your institution need to subscribe and presumably you will be remunerated by your institution (salary, benefits, and so forth).   


Is that perfect?  No way!   Does it hurt younger scholars at institutions without library subscriptions to journals to have to pay to see the final printed version of an article for citational purposes?  Yes.  Is it unfortunate that those teaching at institutions that cannot afford subscriptions do not have a free and open access to all scholarly publications?  Yes.   Are there many sources of inequality and distress?  Yes.  Is this limited open access policy an improvement over the lock-box closed-access  situation we now have?  That answer is also "Yes."  


So that's our highly pragmatic Open Access Policy for a transitional time.  It is an experiment for three years, so we can see how it works, what its impact is, and if, three years from now, there's a better way, we can change the policy and try something else.   It's a little having our cake and eating it too or, more accurately, it's probably more like offering a few crumbs for free (i.e. the work of our own Duke faculty in a pdf preprint version) as an improvement in a highly imperfect and inequitable system.  


My own personal wish?  I wish that every library that adopted an Open Access Policy such as this one adopted by powerful universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Kansas, and, hopefully,  soon, Duke, would also make a pact to boycott all price-gauging commercial journals.  Band together and demand more reasonable prices--or start new, free open source journals at a fraction of the cost.   Use the saved expense (millions and millions) to support reasonably priced journals in all fields, many of which have been brought to the edge of extinction by dwindling library subscriptions.   Or, think really big and think about a NCAA-like consortium where all universities contribute to the common good of scholarly publishing, including the many that do not now support a university press or a scholarly journal.   Collectively, such an association might provide an endowment for  all non-profit  journal and book publishing in all fields.   If small presses and scholarly publishers had some stable base, it would then be possible to make information truly free, not just to a university's own institutional members but to the world.  This would only work, though, with an endowment that covered the costs of scholarly publishing--free going in, free coming out to the world.   Not enforced philanthropy.  Not invisible subsidy by already-overburdened presses and universities that are currently subsidizing, indirectly, for-profit publishing as well as those institutions that do not themselves support the enterprise of not-for-profit scholarly publishing.  If there was a public trust for supporting non-profit scholarship, you wouldn't need subscriptions; scholarly books could be published on the web and freely available.  Then information could be truly free,  start to finish, not like the current system, costly for the producers and frustrated for would-be consumers.  Information really does want to be free, but that applies to the whole process not just to the end product.  We haven't yet figured out how that might work, but it would be an interesting project in this transitional history of scholarly publishing.  


Will there ever be such a "scholarly public goods endowment" that would allow true open access to the fruits of academic labors?  Again, probably not.  But it is something we need to consider on the way towards my personal battlecry:  "Information Wants To Be Sustainable." 




Your idea of an NCAA-like consortium is quite similar to that presented by Frances Pinter, Bloomsbury Academic, at the Tools of Change conference this week in New York. She called it (prospectively) the International Library Coalition for Open Access Books (ILCOAb): take a the money libraries would spend on book/journal purchases, aggregate it, and use that money to fund publications up to the "cost to first copy." Not sure what librarians think about publishers telling them how to wisely spend their money, but from a purely economics point of view, it is a compelling model. She figured that with enough institutions participating, cost of a copy of a book through the coalition could get down to $2.00 each.


One way to interpret the phrase "Information wants to be free" is by using the definition of Free to mean liberty not gratis. The ultimate source for this is The Free Software Definition.

"Free software" is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of "free" as in "free speech," not as in "free beer."


This is terrific, Brian.   It's a pet peeve of mine that the "free software" movement, so crucial to the development of the Web, has been applied rather thoughtlessly to the products of mostly those who, to begin with, barely have any profit margins at all--writers, artists, musicians, university press and scholarly and small press publishers of various kinds.  No one expects the Apple Computer or its software to be "free."   The rallying cry is applied quite promiscuously and unevenly.   I've never heard the "free speech not free beer" analogy before and I love it.  HASTAC, of course, uses Drupal software and Creative Commons licensing and definitely Free Speech principles.   That is why I've been so proud to co-chair the Open Access policy at Duke that promotes certain kinds of free information, but also understands the costs and is seeking sustainability, not free beer!   Thanks so much for writing.


The analogy that I always heard in the nonprofit tech community was that there were two kinds of free: "free, as in beer" (you take it, walk away, and do whatever you want at no cost), and "free, as in kittens" (you can take one for free, but a lot of responsibility and investment will follow). Free speech (and most free software) is in the latter category, of course.


Yes, I've heard this analogy but you've put it beautifully and concisely and I've tweeted it!   The problem in Open Access discussions is the beer flows quite freely and quickly into the kitty bowl.   Pretty soon information that requires a lot of that responsibility and investment is being developed to be beer-like on the distribution end without concern for that starving kitten.  Oh, this analogy is running away with me!   I hope others join this very useful discussion because this distinction is quite crucial and it is the reason open access keeps failing.   Publishers resent it a lot when librarians want the free beer to flow freely for  everyone--when the beer won't exist at all without a lot of labor and investment up front.  Scholars and professional artists and writers worry because someone else is pouring the beer but they don't have the money to buy bread.  Okay, enough of that!  It's a great analogy and I've worked it to death.  Thanks, Ruby.


Here's a NY Times article on this "free" of e-publishing.  Bottom line, it isn't free!


Today I read an amazing article, online and for free, in The Atlantic by By Joshua Green called Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead. It reminded me of the business model innovation the GD made in the '70's. No one is more eloquent about this and its connection to the internet than John Perry Barlow. The Greatful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote a article in 1994 titled, The Economy of Ideas.


An example I love to use in the classroom is the Women Writers Project at Brown ( The stated goal of the site is to promote the rediscovery of forgotten pre-Victorian women writers. When I lead my students to the site, we, of course, run into the gateway. My institution does not subscribe, so the writers in WWP remain unavailable and forgotten to my students. The moment serves as a terrific starting point for the discussion that Cathy has begun here. The stakes in relation to Open Access are indeed very high, and often, as in the case of WWP, deeply ironic. But a project of this scope and complexity moves way beyond any idea of free. The costs of developing it, the willingness to develop it in the continuing absence of full scholarly credit from institutions, and the commitment to maintaining it in an uncertain budgetary climate, are just three of the many questions that must be answered or at least confronted when planning a scholarly endeavor such as this one.

I am very happy that you are working with Paolo Mangiafico on this issue, Cathy. I can think of no better person to be involved. In addition to being a valued friend, he was instrumental in the formative discussions surrounding the Carlyle Letters Online (at present an Open Access site), for which I serve as coordinating editor. Even in the early stages, in 2001, we were discussing the difficulties of creating a project in this paradoxical world where the intellectual ideal of free encounters the pragmatic necessity of sustainability.   

Oh, and by the way, this month, in honor of Women's History Month, the WWP is open and "free" for everyone. April remains the cruellest month.




Loved this post and all the thought-provoking comments!

I'd like to pick up on your comments about Elsevier, because that company is troubling in many aspects. A couple years back they came under heavy criticism for their expansion into the arms industry (feel free to correct/expand on the particulars). After a couple months they completely withdrew from the arms industry, succumbing from pressure from their academic contributors. The point: we do have some power into how these companies run their businesses. So it's highly encouraging to see these conversations taking place! Let's keep it up and put pressure on our colleagues to publish in more "sustainable" venues.

In terms of the free beer / free speech analogy, I wonder if it might help us to explicitly distinguish between production and consumption? Because although a bunch of money went into producing a "free" journal, it's nearly free for me to access (yeah I paid once for the laptop, but I could take that laptop to the library (the funding for which, in turn, is cut from my paycheck, I guess...)). Regardless, I think we all agree that "open", "sustainable", or "free" journals radically help academics, as mentioned in your post. In this regard, my field of geography is doing better every day: at least two such journals and a large collection of previously-expensive articles and chapters. Probably more that I'm not aware of.

Anyway, this is my first comment, so be easy on me in the replies :)


Dear Burnsr77---Of course I'll be easy on you in the comments.  Your comment is great.  I'm shocked by the whole arms issue.  I missed that somehow and look forward to reading up on this and feel encouraged that pressure really did some good.   And, yes, I'm a huge believer in thinking about all the parts of the publishing process (online or conventional) as interconnected:  production/consumption/distribution/archiving plus all the array of other social and cultural factors that go into the reading and writing of books (literacy, public libraries, public schools, democratic political systems, capitalism, etc).  My original field is 18th century technology and the advent of mass printing, mass education, and popular literary forms like the novel (the "video game of the 18th century) all at the same time as the American Constitution was being formulated.   There are wise and useful analogies (and also differences) between then and now but, like all practitioners of histoire du livre, I don't think you can talk about one part of the process without talking about another part of the process.  What I like so much about your post is respecting that the different parts of the process are related but not identical.  Thanks so much for writing! 


A new op ed piece is suggesting that we need to be careful about claims that open access leads to more citations, and I've made slight modifications in the above think piece (on March 18, 2010) accordingly.  Here's the piece that made me think more circumspectly about the often-stated connection between open access and greater citation:


Anonymous (not verified)


nice read and a very interesting topic.
education is a very good investment. investing for a good book is a very very good investment, since this would benefit the student in many ways.
affordable education? everybody would love that! information should be shared, should be sustainable, should be affordable for the students.
i cant agree more with brianR, we should think of "free" as in "free speech", not as in "free beer", nice analogy and love it too! :D

nice read and a very interesting topic.

education is a very good investment. investing for a good book is a very very good investment, since this would benefit the student in many ways.

affordable education? everybody would love that! information should be shared, should be sustainable, should be affordable for the students.

i cant agree more with brianR, we should think of "free" as in "free speech", not as in "free beer", nice analogy and love it too! :D