Information Wants to be Valuable

One of the greatest myths of our time is that "Information wants to be free." The Internet corollary is "You can find anything on the web." Sure. Just try to find most original science, technology or medical research with your favorite search engine, and you'll quickly see how absurd these myths actually are.

In fact, publishing original science, technology and medical (STM) research is a huge business, estimated to generate annual revenues of nearly $10 billion. Unless you're willing to shell out serious shekels for access to proprietary information systems, or have priveleges in a library that pays for them, you're not likely to find much STM content online.

This tight control of information has spawned a Napster-inspired rebellion among the ranks of the principal users of STM content -- librarians and scientists. Libraries must purchase as much of this literature as possible to fulfill their role as infomediaries. But library budgets are under constant pressure, and most libraries can only afford a small number of the journals they would like to provide.

This has the consumers of this information -- namely, scientists -- hopping mad. Not only are they denied access to crucial research, but their own output doesn't get the widespread dissemination that enhances prestige and leads to career advancement.

Scientists and librarians are revolting against the control exercised by STM publishers. The Public Library of Science has published an open letter that urges publishers to allow the research reports that have appeared in their journals to be included in electronic archives and to be read and used without obstruction. More than 24,800 scientists from 166 countries have signed the letter.

Many librarians are also fighting back, throwing their support behind a Napster-like peer-to-peer file sharing system called Docster. The primary purpose of Docster is not so much to avoid paying for journals but rather to complement existing delivery systems found in libraries, schools and other research-intensive institutions.

Publishers aren't taking these challenges lightly. They argue that the value they add to research justifies the expense of scholarly journals. For example, most are peer-reviewed, edited by specialists, and are advertising-free. Many are published by non-profit societies that use subscription revenues to fund other activities of the society.

So how did we end up in this mess? It's instructive to look at the origins of the "information wants to be free" concept.

Stewart Brand was probably the first person to use the phrase. Here's what he said to the first Hacker's Conference in 1984: "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

Brand's words deftly illustrated the dramatic distinction between the value of information and the cost of distributing it. Over time, one side of the equation was left out. "Information wants to be free," at least to many people accustomed to searching the web or downloading music with Napster really grew to mean "I want information to be free."

STM content never really migrated to the web, remaining firmly in the grasp of publishers who closely guarded the content. But scientists and librarians took note of the power of the web to widely distribute information, and began to question the value of the cartels that controlled the distribution of STM content.

The journal Nature has taken the debate online. It has invited leading representatives of the main groups of stakeholders and observers from the mainstream Internet industries to express their views in 1,000-word articles.

The debate is excellent, and should be of interest to every web searcher. Though this debate is about access to scientific research, there will undoubtedly be a spillover effect with an impact on the content we can expect to find -- or not -- on the web.

The bursting of the dot-com bubble has seen the fight between free and fee grow more intense. Increasingly, we're moving away from the "everything is free" model to one where payment is required, for everything from accessing content to listing your site with search engines and directories.

In the Nature e-debate, the arguments on all sides of the issue are compelling. Steve Lawrence, co-author of the first scientific study of the size of the web, offers convincing evidence that papers published on the web are cited more often than those with restricted distribution. This has significant implications for a search engine like Google, which uses a form of citation analysis to determine relevance.

On the other hand, Tim O'Reilly, publisher of many books that are highly prized by Open Source programmers, echoes Brand, noting that information wants to be valuable, and that the services provided by a publisher really are worth paying for.

Even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, weighs in, describing how the future "semantic web" will likely profoundly change the very nature of how scientific knowledge is produced and shared, in ways that we can now barely imagine.

Potent forces are shaping and driving way information will be published on the web in the future. This fascinating debate offers an important glimpse of how searching the web and what we will find there is likely to change dramatically as the powerful forces that control content struggle with the ever decreasing costs of distributing information.

Future E-Access to the Primary Literature
The introduction and table of contents page for the scientific literature publishing debate at Nature.

Free Online Availability Substantially Increases a Paper's Impact
By Steve Lawrence, NEC Research Institute.

Information Wants to be Valuable
Tim O'Reilly, founder and president of O'Reilly & Associates.

Scientific Publishing on the 'Semantic Web'
By Tim Berners-Lee — the inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — and James Hendler — Computer Science Department, University of Maryland, and responsible for research on agent-based computing at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Related Links:

Public Library of Science Open Letter
The advocacy group that believes the permanent, archival record of scientific research and ideas should neither be owned nor controlled by publishers, but should belong to the public, and should be made freely available.

Project information on the document delivery system based on peer-to-peer file sharing.

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.