Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Isentropic Disruption

The free dissemination of research is intrinsically good. For this reason alone, we must support open-access initiatives in general and Green Open Access in particular. One open repository does not change the dysfunctional scholarly-information market, but every new repository immediately expands open access and contributes to a worldwide network that may eventually create the change we are after.

Some hope that Green Open Access together with other incremental steps will lead to a “careful, thoughtful transition of revenue from toll to open access”. Others think that eminent leaders can get together and engineer a transition to a pre-defined new state. It is understandable to favor a gradual, careful, thoughtful, and smooth transition to a well-defined new equilibrium along an expertly planned path. In thermodynamics, a process that takes a system from one equilibrium state to another via infinitesimal steps that maintain order and equilibrium is called isentropic. (Note: Go elsewhere to learn thermodynamics.) Unfortunately, experience since the dawn of the industrial age has taught us that there is nothing isentropic about a disruption. There is no pre-defined destination. Leaders and experts usually have it wrong. The path is a random walk. The transition, if it happens, is sudden.

No matter what we do, the scholarly-information market will disrupt. The web has disrupted virtually every publisher and information intermediator. Idiosyncrasies of the scholarly-information market may have delayed the disruption of academic publishers and libraries, but the disruptive triggers are piling up. Will Green Open Access be a disruptive trigger when some critical mass is reached? Will it be a start-up venture based on a bright idea that catches on? Will it be a boycott to end all boycotts? Will it be some legislation somewhere? Will it be one or more major university systems opting out and causing an avalanche? Will it be the higher-education bubble bursting?

No matter what we do, disruption is disorderly and painful. Publishers must change their business model and transition from a high-margin to a low-margin environment. Important journals will be lost. This will disrupt some scholarly disciplines more severely than others. An open-access world without site licenses will disrupt academic libraries, whose budget is dominated by site-license acquisition and maintenance. Change of this depth and breadth is messy, disorderly, turbulent, and chaotic.

Disruption of the scholarly-information market is unavoidable. Disruption is disorderly and painful. We do not know what the end point will be. It is impossible to engineer the perfect transition. We do not have to like it, but ignoring the inevitable does not help. We have to come to terms with it, grudgingly accept it, and eventually embrace it by realizing that all of us have benefitted tremendously from technology-driven disruption in every other sector of the economy. Lack of disruption is a weakness. It is a sign that market conditions discourage experiments and innovation. We need to lower the barriers of entry for innovators and give them an opportunity to compete. Fortunately, universities have the power to do this without negotiation, litigation, or legislation.

If 10% of a university community wants one journal, 10% wants a competing journal, and 5% wants both, the library is effectively forced to buy both site licenses for 100% of the community. Site licenses reduce competition between journals and force universities to buy more than they need. The problem is exacerbated further by bundling and consortium “deals”. It is inordinately expensive in staff time to negotiate complex site-license contracts. Once acquired, disseminating the content according to contractual terms requires expensive infrastructure and ongoing maintenance. This administrative burden, pointlessly replicated at thousands of universities, adds no value. It made sense to buy long-lived paper-based information collectively. Leasing digital information for a few years at a time is sensible only inside the mental prison of the paper model.

Everyone with an iTunes library is familiar with the concept of a personal digital library. Pay-walled content should be managed by individuals who assess their own needs and make their own personal price-value assessments. After carefully weighing the options, they might still buy something just because it seems like a good idea. Eliminating the rigid acquisition policies of libraries invigorates the market, lowers the barriers of entry to innovators, incentivizes experiments, and increases price pressure on all providers. This improves the market for pay-walled content immediately, and it may help increase the demand for open access.

I would implement a transition to subsidized personal digital libraries in three steps. Start with a small step to introduce the university community to personal digital libraries. Cancel enough site licenses to transfer 10% of the site-license budget to an individual-subscription fund. After one year, cancel half of the remaining site licenses. After two years, transfer the entire site-license budget to the individual-subscription fund. From then on, individuals are responsible to buy their own pay-walled content, subsidized by the individual-subscription fund.

Being the middleman in digital-lending transactions is a losing proposition for libraries. It is a service that contradicts their mission. Libraries disseminate information; they do not protect it on behalf of publishers. Libraries buy information and set it free; they do not rent information and limit its availability to a chosen few. Libraries align themselves with the interests of their users, not with those of the publishers. Because of site licenses, academic libraries have lost their identity. They can regain it by focusing 100% on archiving and open access.

Librarians need to ponder the future and identity of academic libraries. For a university leadership under budgetary strain, the question is less profound and more immediate. Right now, what is the most cost-effective way to deliver pay-walled content to students and faculty?