Regular readers have heard me complain before about the straight-up weirdness of the way the cost of research falls on institutions of higher education. Universities directly or indirectly subsidize faculty to carry out research through a variety of means: sabbaticals, teaching loads that are designed to allow time to do research and dissemination of results, support for laboratory or travel costs, and so on. So faculty carry out their research and then often give it away for free or virtually so to a publisher. The value-added of many academic publications comes from peer review, which mostly (again) faculty do for free. (E.g., another use of labor time supported by universities.)
The publishers then sell the product back to the universities at a high cost. Tell me, what’s wrong with this picture?
Once upon a time, the publishers could justify this economy with reference to the expenses of publication. That’s still true for books, but with journal articles, conference papers, archival materials and so on, I don’t see the cost argument any longer. With the advent of digital technologies, the costs to publishers can be much smaller than they once were, and many of the costs which do exist are start-up costs rather than ongoing. There’s a reasonably good existing format (.pdf). The publisher needs to pay only for storage, preparation of material, a bit of copyediting, coordination of the peer review process, and an interface design for the materials. Even the costs of online accessibility and storage could be cut radically if the publisher disseminated a local copy of the publication to all archives and libraries wanting a copy, as opposed to serving it from a central location.
So with all this in mind, I’m trying to decide how I feel about a recent request from the Aluka archive for transcripts of interviews or other primary materials I’ve generated in my life as an Africanist scholar. Right now, I’m feeling pretty dubious about the request, and I’d like to see what other people with an active interest in intellectual property issues think about it. (Paging Lawrence Lessig and Siva Vaidhyanathan.)
Here’s my issue: they’re asking me and many other scholars to donate primary material for digitization. They are a non-profit, and their start-up has been funded by the Mellon Foundation. (Aluka is actually a project of Ithaka, the people behind JSTOR and ArtSTOR.) However, they’re intending to charge institutions outside of Africa a vendor fee for access to the archive that they’re going to create. From what I can see, they aren’t claiming any kind of expansive intellectual property rights over donated material, but neither is this a strict Creative Commons-type license. I’m also fairly alarmed by my reading of one point in the FAQ, which seems to imply that people who donate materials will have right of veto over even fair-use quotations of donated materials by other researchers, but I may be misunderstanding what’s meant. (See the second to last question in the FAQ.)
I’m also vaguely concerned that the definitions of relevant material in reference some of the archive’s goals may be more tightly or ideologically drawn than I myself would approve of, but that may be an unfair apprehension on my part. I do think I tend to think that one thing that’s important for understanding the history of struggle in colonial and postcolonial Africa is calling into question the terms and nature of “struggle”, and questioning whether in fact colonialism in Africa was as totalizing a phenomenon as some of the historiography has taken it to be. That view would probably lead me to think that almost anything belongs in the archive that Aluka is building. I wonder if some of the scholars most involved in the project might think otherwise.
I guess I don’t know why I should donate transcripts of interviews or other primary materials I’ve collected or created to an entity that’s going to turn around and charge my institution a vendor fee (that could well become more expensive over time) in order to access those materials in digital form. I don’t want to make money from this material, except by writing about it (and that’s a very small amount of money), but neither do I want to end up costing my own institution money for others to use something I’m willing to give away for free.
This seems to me to be precisely one of those moments where universities should be banding together under a single umbrella consortium to cut out all the middlemen. It’s one thing when you’re digitizing journals that were long since published (JSTOR, for example). That intellectual property cow got out of the barn a long time ago. Universities don’t own those rights, they just own copies of the journals. It’s another thing to allow the creation of a completely new digital archive out of material whose ownership status is completely open, and whose creation was heavily subsidized by academic institutions. Maybe this is just semantics on my part, that the difference between paying into a consortial effort to build an archive and paying a fee to a vendor who has done the same is no difference at all. Both cost a university something. If the second costs less, then maybe it’s preferable. Sometimes it makes more sense fiscally to rent rather than own.
But ownership isn’t just a matter of money. I do think there’s a big difference between a project to which you belong as a participant and a project that is external to your institution, a difference that is one part about the ethics of information and one part about the pragmatic desire to avoid being taken hostage at a later date by a vendor who owns a service that you have become dependent upon.