Building a new scholarly communications ecosystem from first principles

Like the old saying goes, information wants to be free. In particular, the consumers of information would prefer for the most part not to have to directly pay for the information they are consuming. The information itself, if I may anthropomorphize for a moment, also wants to circulate as freely as possible, to be as consumed as widely as possible, to be as highly regarded as possible. That way it gets to be the information that "wins" the best-used-most-used information sweepstakes.

This seems to me to be a first principle for scholarly communications. Both the users of the information and the information itself strongly prefer that there be no toll access barrier between them.

On the other hand, the old saying also tells us that information wants to be expensive. In particular, good information is non-trivial to create so its creators would prefer to be fairly compensated for their effort. Information is also expensive because there are genuine overheads involved in endorsing, validating and disseminating the information.

And this should also be a first principle for scholarly communications. There needs to be a way to properly fund the dissemination of information.

In the traditional scholarly communications ecosystem, the true creators of the information -- the scholars -- aren't directly compensated. Broadly speaking, their salaries are paid by the funders of their research, not the consumers or disseminators of their research outputs. Also, the relative prestige that accrues to them isn't funded directly by anyone really, but is a result of the value that the consumers place on their information relative to other information. As such, it seems to me that how the scholars pay their bills and earn prestige doesn't need to be directly connected to the rest of the ecosystem and as such isn't a first principle.

And speaking of traditional, there's another sticky bit. What about intermediaries like publishers and libraries? It seems both of these would prefer that information be expensive, to preserve their symbiotic roles in the ecosystem. Charging for publishing scholarship as well as validation and the conferring of prestige on the the part of publishers. And on the part of libraries by redirecting funder monies towards those publishers for their services.

Is there a first principle for publishers and libraries? It seems to me that they can certainly play an important role in the facilitation and implementation of the other first principles but that perhaps the intermediary role isn't itself a first principle.

At this point we are left with very few first principles. We're left with the requirement for no toll access barriers to information. And with the burden to create a funding model that does not impose those toll access barriers.

Now comes the hard part. For which my wisdom alone is not sufficient.

Have at it everyone!


I present a few readings below that will perhaps offer some guidance to us all. As always, I welcome suggestions for more.

(And thanks to Constance Wiebrands for getting me thinking about first principles. And there's more to come.

Some of my own recent thoughts are Whither Science Publishing and An Open Access thought experiment. I include them here rather than above because I didn't want to get too explicit in the text.

And for Ontario readers, this post forms the basis for the OA breakout session I'll be doing next week at Scholars Portal Day.)

(Terms I didn't use in this post: book, journal, article, peer review, impact factor, metrics, editor, subscription, open access, author pays, big data, the name of any publisher or discipline.)

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Gteat list of resources! In some of the discussions I've had with PLOS staff we've talked about ways in which the data can be free and metadata/metadata services can charged for. In an ecosystem with very healthy post-piblication peer review the publishing ecosystem has a lot more dynamic information to build on and monetize.

We're playing around with building this kind of post-publication discussion at if you have time to check us out and give feedback.

By David Jay (not verified) on 29 Nov 2012 #permalink