Friday, 8 April 2011

Paywalls, Kitemarks or Free Downloads: the future of academic work

Once a month, I work in London, in Bloomsbury. At the end of the day I sometimes go round to the London Review of Books and stock up on new books - maybe three or four, mostly history and politics. I probably read a book a week these days; when I was an undergraduate, one of my tutors told me I should be reading a Book A Day (he made it sound like one word: "Bookaday, Pateman; Bookaday") and for many years that was my target.

There is a Public Library within a hundred meters of my home, but I never use it. I use the Internet.

When I retired from the University of Sussex in 2000, I began to put my academic work on line at www.selectedworks.co.uk and yesterday the Flagcounter, installed a couple of years ago, registered a visitor from what it tells me is my 126th country, Andorra.

I don't know how many Internet countries there are in the world, but 126 seems quite good going. The Flagcounter only flags up a small proportion of visitors, since many computers are trained to withold the information it needs, so for all I know I have had readers in Andorra before. No matter. I never expected anyone in Andorra to read my work. Flagcounter reckons 66% of my visitors are coming from the UK or USA; there is then a sharp drop off - it takes four countries (India, Iran, Canada, China) to provide the next 10% of visits. I am surprised to see Iran there.

There is no paywall on my site and there is no kitemarking. This is how I think academic work - or at least old academic work - should be distributed. Most of it was written for journals before anyone even thought of the Internet and the Internet has given it an unexpected new lease of life. Likewise, the publishers who originally put out the journals at captive-market Library prices which covered their costs now find that they have unanticipated bonus income from the pay-to-view recycling of old academic work. Academic journals have always been a bit of a publishing scam and now even more so.

Pay-to-view sites for old academic work should be discouraged. I don't know how best this can be achieved. A modification of copyright laws might be the best route. A general principle should be that journal work which was originally produced by publicly-funded academics (like all those in the UK) should be in the public domain, available at no cost or only administrative costs. Different principles could apply to books.

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