Open Source Scholarship

The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture threatened legal action for Shelly Batts’ use of use of a a chart and a table on Retrospectacle, her science blog. Though the issue was quickly resolved in favor of Batts, a bright, and unwelcome spotlight has been trained on the use and abuse of intellectual property by academic journals.

Misgivings about the academic publishing industry are further aggravated by the nefarious dealings of some of the publishers (most notably, Elsevier’s involvement in the international arms trade) and the fundamental question: In the age of open web-accessible journals, what use are proprietary academic publications to academics and the public?

Consider this wonderful quote from Slashdot’s comments:

I have an ingenious idea for a company. My company will be in the business of selling computer games. But, unlike other computer game companies, mine will never have to hire a single programmer, game designer, or graphic artist. Instead I’ll simply find people who know how to make games, and ask them to donate their games to me. Naturally, anyone generous enough to donate a game will immediately relinquish all further rights to it. From then on, I alone will be the copyright-holder, distributor, and collector of royalties. This is not to say, however, that I’ll provide no “value-added.” My company will be the one that packages the games in 25-cent cardboard boxes, then resells the boxes for up to $300 apiece.

But why would developers donate their games to me? Because they’ll need my seal of approval. I’ll convince developers that, if a game isn’t distributed by my company, then the game doesn’t “count” — indeed, barely even exists — and all their labor on it has been in vain.

Admittedly, for the scheme to work, my seal of approval will have to mean something. So before putting it on a game, I’ll first send the game out to a team of experts who will test it, debug it, and recommend changes. But will I pay the experts for that service? Not at all: as the final cherry atop my chutzpah sundae, I’ll tell the experts that it’s their professional duty to evaluate, test, and debug my games for free!

On reflection, perhaps no game developer would be gullible enough to fall for my scheme. I need a community that has a higher tolerance for the ridiculous — a community that, even after my operation is unmasked, will study it and hold meetings, but not “rush to judgment” by dissociating itself from me. But who on Earth could possibly be so paralyzed by indecision, so averse to change, so immune to common sense?

I’ve got it: academics!

-From Scott Aaronson’s review of The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship by John Willinsky (aptly, online as a free PDF).

I think that a good case can be made for free access to publicly subsidized research and scholarship, but I’ll leave that to informal arguments with my father-in-law, over gin and tonics.

(Elsevier’s questionable business practices were originally brought to my attention by Tom Stafford’s blog, Idiolect).

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