Information wants to be free, journals want it to be expensive


  • wow, this article on The Conversation is annoying!
  • I mean seriously, soooo annoying!
  • conflict of interest – I’m a massive Stuart Brand fan boy.
  • skip halfway down for take down of crappy article.

An article on The Conversation really got under my skin for the almost willful misunderstanding of Stewart Brand followed closely by a hugely biased point by point on open access vs paid publisher. I felt compelled to get this anger off my chest.

‘Information wants to be free’ is surely one of the most widely misunderstood quotes of the internet era. Most people think it is just about making everything available for free, while Brand’s actual point is that information is incredibly valuable, but the changing nature of communication was lowering the marginal cost of distribution so much that it is tending to $0. Fair enough, the author of this piece quotes the oft omitted second section, but that is completely negated by willful misinterpretation of the first section. In my interpretation of Brand, saying ‘all information should be made available for free’ would be an extreme position in a world in which people are increasingly trading in bits rather than atoms. He said information wants to be free because some hacker with a university internet connection could make a lot of valuable information free over the internet on a scale that would be impractical for an individual in the dead tree era. Sorry, rant over. I did tell you I was a massive Stewart Brand fanboy.

Ok, on with the takedown!

‘What the commercial model offers’

  1. ’50 free electronic offprints and permission to upload pre-typeset versions on personal and institutional websites’ Oh thank you, thank you! Kind publishers! From nothing more than the goodness of your own hearts, you won’t charge me for sending something I wrote to whoever the fuck I want!
  2. ‘typesetting and production’ – ok, I’m not a publishing professional, I don’t know much about kerning, but I’m pretty sure that if one of your major selling points is the ability to print legible text, then you were screwed by lexmark in 1994.
  3. ‘legal services and copyright protection’ – are these the same legal services I will get an email from if I send 51 electronic offprints to my academic nearest and dearest? and isn’t it their copyright, not mine that they are protecting? not exactly services to the author.
  4. ‘computerised management and tracking of submissions’ – srsly? the best you could come up with is that you won’t lose my manuscript? i’m curious what kind of journal would not have these systems? and how exactly this is being sold as a benefit to the author?
  5. ‘archiving of peer review reports’ – if by archiving, you mean, taking specialist content generated by someone you didn’t pay and making it generally unavailable, then yes, you do that.
  6. ‘global marketing’ – you mean, they put it on their website?
  7. ‘distribution to thousands of subscribing libraries’ – you mean, they can access (via some shitty library system rather than just *the web*) your pdfs?
  8. ‘many permit their authors to make free copies of their own articles for class use’ – AAAAARRRRRGHGHGHOIHJADAHKDH!!!!
  9. ‘The corporates offer critical marketing mass; their websites dynamically cross-index similar topics within their respective stables’ – hahahaha, y’mean, like a blog?
  10. ‘Permission charges enable journals, publishers and authors to earn their livings. Denying them income and making their intellectual labour ‘free’ is not an option for any of them’ – eeerrrr, what intellectual labour? all that laborious type setting you mentioned earlier? did you write these papers? review them? I hope not! frankly, earn your living doing something useful rather than moving billions of pounds a year from shrinking research budgets to corporate profits and shareholder dividends.

What open access lacks

  1. ‘Of concern is that electronic subscription costs have by far outstripped inflation.’ Did you even read that article jackass? it was all about how publishers are screwing over universities by jacking up prices even while their costs are falling due to all that Stewart Brand goodness you tried to wrap your brain cell round earlier.
  2. ‘In normal economics, an oversupply would see a drop in price.’ – firstly, in normal economics, people *buy* the things that they sell, so let’s not pretend academic publishing is normal economics (even without adding that the thing you are selling was made by the people you are selling it to). secondly, the market aspects of this are completely secondary to the primary aim, which is SCIENCE. more papers generally equates to more knowledge, which is a good thing.

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