Opening Access to Content

Jun 21, 2005

June 2005 Issue

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Open access is an initiative to distribute content over the Web at no charge to the reader. It is not an attack on copyrights, nor does it imply that no money is to be made on the content. Innovative business models suggest that sales of physical items like books and technical reports might actually improve if the content is freely available for browsing and searching on the Web, with some important caveats.

Sales of the Environmental Careers Organization's career guide doubled when the whole book was made browsable. Readers liked what they saw online enough to pay for a portable copy. And as a side benefit for an organization whose mission is to disseminate knowledge, an estimated 100 times the number of sold copies were read online. Studies show that Amazon.com's policy of making many pages readable and the whole book searchable has improved sales. Google's deal with universities to get books online has greatly enhanced Google Print, which finds search terms in its collection of online books. Google provides links to order the book (with no kickback payments to Google) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and its own Froogle.

Michael Jensen, director of publishing technologies for the National Academy of Sciences, studied sales of its 3,300 books, all of which have free online versions. When the free version is in PDF, easy to download and print, sales are negatively impacted by as much as one-third. When the free version is individual HTML pages, easy to navigate and search, but not to print, sales modestly improve. Tech-savvy users have built harvesting tools to collect the HTML into a single file, but they are few, and barriers to automated harvesting mitigate this problem. For organizations like universities and non-profits that must balance economic sustainability with their mission to promulgate knowledge, strategic Web formatting of "free" content is critical.

A major push for freely available content, with virtually no restrictions on use, concerns the scientific literature, peer-reviewed reports on research mostly funded by taxpayers in the U.S. and abroad. These "publish-or-perish" materials are the coin of the realm in the academic community, and plans to change the way they are distributed generate a lot of angst, not only among the publishers. In the last two decades, the price of scholarly journals has skyrocketed, rising four times the rate of inflation and forcing libraries to reduce the number of titles they carry, thus denying scholars access to knowledge—at a time when Web distribution of content promises to greatly reduce the cost of publishing. Profits at leading scientific journal publishers like Elsevier in the Netherlands are many times the industry average. Maybe they see the end of an era and want to milk the cash cow before it dries up.

"Prices limit access, and intolerable prices limit access intolerably," says Peter Suber (paraphrasing Lord Acton). Suber, a philosophy professor at Earlham College and now the leading advocate for open access, writes a newsletter on free online scholarship and edits a group blog—Open Access News—which reports the pulse of the movement, including OA journals with articles reviewed by peers, and open archives, works deposited by authors with no review.

He offers an overview of the movement and a detailed timeline of events that chronicle a revolution underway in content distribution: Legislators in the UK House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives question why taxpayers should support high profit levels in foreign publishing houses. Editorial teams of several prominent scientific journals have resigned en masse to start equivalent OA journals. (Suber also collected their mission statements in his "Declarations of Independence.") The rapidly growing Directory of Open Access Journals now includes 1,525 journals with more than 70,000 articles.

Whereas open journals can enforce editorial style and demand a certain level of metadata, open archives are a real problem, since contributing authors have varying abilities and willingness to characterize and categorize their work. The Open Archives Initiative attempts to turn a hodgepodge of these collected papers, in hundreds of disparate repositories, into something manageable and searchable with clever Web metadata interchange tools (mostly based on the Dublin Core and the Library of Congress Z39.50 protocol).

My own modest CMS Review is licensed as a Creative Commons, so material can be used openly by anyone in the content management community, and I believe that no content owner can responsibly ignore the implications of open access for the future of content distribution.