by Scott Aaronson
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!
Everything I described with computer games would work even better with academic papers. For then it wouldn't be the academics themselves who were footing the bill, but their universities' libraries. So, under the academics' noses, I could gradually gain control of much of the world's scientific output -- a unique and irreplaceable resource, worth almost any price I'd care to name.
In the past few years, there have been many detailed analyses of the rise in journal prices over time, the cost per page of one journal versus another, the tactics of the publishing companies, and so on. A website by John Baez and an open letter by Donald Knuth provide excellent starting points for those who are interested. In my view, what's missing at this point is mostly anger -- a justified response to being asked to donate our time, not to Amnesty International or the Sierra Club, but to the likes of Kluwer and Elsevier. One would think such a request would anger everyone: conservatives and libertarians because of the unpaid labor, liberals because of the beneficiaries of that labor.
But scientists, despite (or because of) their professional virtues -- understatement, self-criticism, respect for academic tradition -- seem prone to a peculiar anger deficiency. Not only do many of them continue to work pro bono for outrageously-priced journals, some of them even criticize colleagues who don't! Lance Fortnow recently defended Elsevier's Information and Computation, a subscription to which costs a jaw-dropping $3000 per year, as follows:
In my view, once we've mustered a level of anger commensurate with what's happening, we can then debate what to do next, which journals are overpriced and which aren't, what qualifies as "open access," and so on. But the first step is for a critical mass of us to acknowledge that we are being had.
For me, the most important idea in the The Access Principle is that scholars have a duty to make their work available, not only to their colleagues, but ideally to anyone who wants it. As Willinsky writes:
Today, many journal articles are online, but are accessible only from schools, companies, and research centers that have bought exorbitantly-priced "institutional subscriptions" to services like Elsevier's ScienceDirect. I've always been amazed by the arrogance of the view that this represents an acceptable solution to the problem of circulating research. Even if the subscriptions cost a reasonable amount (they don't), and even if the researchers who were "entitled" to them could easily access them away from their workplaces (they can't), who are we to say that a precocious high-school student, or a struggling researcher in Belarus or Ghana, has no legitimate use for our work? Or if our work is intended only for a small circle of colleagues, then why even bother writing it up? Why invest months of boring, painstaking effort to express, in elegant LaTeX form, what would probably take fifteen minutes to explain to a colleague on a blackboard? How serious are we about scholarship being an eternal conversation that transcends time and space?
The first time I saw a college library, I was eleven years old and attending a summer program at Bucks County Community College. If you remember the scene from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" where the provincial Belle sees the endless shelves of books in the Beast's library, you'll know roughly how I felt. Even though the Bucks library was tiny by research standards, nothing had prepared me for it -- certainly not my school library or the local public one. I never knew that so many words had been written about such esoteric topics. When I picked up a recreational math journal, and found an article about generalizing the Fibonacci sequence to "Tribonacci" and higher-order sequences, I felt like I was entering a secret world.
Granted, it might not be feasible for every elementary school on Earth to stock journals containing articles about the Tribonacci sequence. The point is that today, in the Internet age, they shouldn't have to. And yet, even as I write, much of the serious content on the Internet remains sequestered behind pointless, artificial walls -- walls that serve the interests of neither the readers nor the authors, but only of the wall-builders themselves. If I have a medical problem, why can't I download the full text of clinical studies dealing with that problem? Why do so many researchers still not post their papers on their web pages -- or if they do, then omit their early papers? When will we in academia get our act together enough to make the world's scholarly output readable, for free, by anyone with a web browser?
Now imagine 243 pages of prose like the above, and you'll understand why The Access Principle isn't going to fly off the shelves, despite the timeliness and importance of its message. And yet, even if he seems physically unable to write one subordinate clause where five would do, I'm grateful to Willinsky all the same -- for in The Access Principle, he's given the open-access movement its first attempt at an intellectual foundation. Now it's up to the rest of us to supply the anger.
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