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Free and Freer Culture

Access might never be totally open or fully free, but there are such things as more open access and freer culture. I heed David Golumbia’s warning about leveraging (heh) corporate discourse. Publishing is indeed always public, in some sense of the word. And it is true, the old economic regime (e.g. Elsevier) is just being replaced by the new (e.g. Google). We should not, as David warns us, jump out of the fire and into another mode of economic exploitation. Fine.

But the current system is also untenable. David, your recent (and excellent) article in Langauge Sciences is available a la carte from Elsevier for $31.50. That is an insane price, particularly when we consider that the journal is based in Cape Town, and has a strong African following. As a special bonus of crazy, Elsevier allows Language Science authors to publish open access for $USD 1100. These imbalances are easy to overlook from within a university system that expends millions to make rich resources available to its members. Meanwhile, and despite the “crisis” in academic publishing, Elsevier posted record profits in 2012, and that is in a recession year. Their stock almost doubled in the last year alone.

Someone is getting very rich on our work, and it is not the researcher, the reviewer, or the journal editor–all of whom work for goat droppings. This is a classic case of being alienated from one’s labor. Ten-twenty years ago middlemen like Elsevier may have had a case for some “value added” services. But today, they are not needed. The costs of publication and distribution are low enough for us to reclaim the publishing ecosystem and to experiment with fair pricing, licensing, and access architectures. Our libraries and professional organizations are close allies and natural laboratories for such efforts.

Yes, it is true that open access, so envisioned, is uniquely suited to Google’s business model. But having control of the publishing and distribution channels means also negotiating with automated content aggregators directly. And in the best case scenario, it means generating revenues that flow back into the ecosystem, rather than out of it. You see, I am not afraid of a little corporate speak. I read Kathleen’s piece as a call to action: we must reclaim the business of scholarly communication. What we say depends on the economic conditions of how we say it.

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