The rules for academic publishing really haven’t changed in centuries. Once, there was a large percentage of the populace who were skeptical of academic research, as was apparent when Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society began its publication life in 1665. To make the system work against that pushback, the method had to be codified. As a result, access to research material was difficult to attain, to the extent that scientists as late as the 19th century actively condoned criminal behavior just to have access to corpses for study and presentation.
It took a while, but given the advances that made everyone’s life better, people eventually put more trust in scientific research, so the bodies could stay resting in the ground and scientists could do their research in relative peace. Even so, publishing was still expensive and research material hard to find. In order to facilitate and disseminate the research, then, academic publishing took on a model that made it look much like a guild system, with all the benefits for those inside and all the roadblocks for the rest.
It made sense in those days, but it seems like advances in science and technology, as well as our general faith in the goodness of those things, would have opened research material availability. However, the reality is that, at best, the system has stayed the same, even with the rise of computers, which makes publishing fast and inexpensive. Even though it’s supposed to be about the science, it has become increasingly about the revenue.
As a result, the cost of a particular journal can run into the thousands of dollars and, as everywhere else today, organizational budgets for libraries have shrunk to the point that they are having to make hard decisions about which journals to cut out of their subscription loop. That’s plain sad, because, again, it’s supposed to be about the science.
Happily, though, we are in a particularly interesting place in history, in which our use of computer technology has become so sophisticated that it makes the old system appear rather silly. As individuals, we can go online and find mountains of content on any subject of interest, teach ourselves to do virtually anything, and make sense of things that people only a generation ago hadn’t the tools to even begin.
If it’s that easy for us, shouldn’t the path also be made clear for academics, scientists, and researchers, who are the ones advancing the fields that allow us as individuals to collect so much knowledge and information? Now, there are obvious considerations to keep in mind. First, and most importantly, it’s absolutely cost-prohibitive for individuals in general to access that material, same as it is for the researcher. That’s why they affiliate with budgeted organizations that can collect and store them for use. That’s great, but organizations can’t pay the prices—as much as $40,000 for a single year of a top journal—that the publishers charge, not for all of them that they might want or need, at least.
The model has to change, and that appears to be happening as I write. Organizations like the Public Library of Science (PLOS) are in full support of open access to scientific research, while the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is actively engaged in creating what they’re calling the Semantic Web, a new way to look at the Internet, one that focuses on data in general rather than simply documents. This view puts entities (people, places, and things) in relationship to one another. By linking with one or many of existing datasets out there (DBpedia or Wikidata, for instance), one can access related content from around the web, while your data is added to the pile for others to access.
The greater the number of participating organizations, the better this is going to work. But I firmly believe that once people see the wealth of possibilities inherent in such a venture, their eyes will be opened to possibilities I can’t even imagine. Just look at what the BBC did with Linked Data for their coverage of the Olympics or the BBC Nature website. This stuff is absolutely amazing. BBC Nature, especially, thrills me. The deluge of information you return on a simple search for “koala” makes me want to learn everything I can about the little guys. How could anybody not want access like this?
You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so as individuals and organizations get used to working in the Semantic Web, with all the access to information that comes with it, they’ll start to demand it everywhere. To publishers, the most important thing is always going to be the bottom line. There’s no real way to change that, except to drag them kicking and screaming into this brave new world of information exchange.