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Will open access open a Pandora’s box for scientific journals?
June 2011
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author
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When I was coming up in the journalism world, Al Gore hadn't "invented" the Internet quite yet. We counted headlines, banged out stories on typewriters and pasted them onto graphic paper using rubber cement and kept the Yellow Pages within arm's reach at all times. In fact, The Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper and my entrée into this crazy business, was in the process of installing fiber-optic lines by which content would be transmitted from the newspaper's downtown location to its new $200 million printing and distribution facility in the suburbs—which was considered to be start-of-the-art technology at the time.  
 
For journalists, reporting on a story was hard work. Finding interesting stories to report on and doing them justice was very much a grassroots effort. There were no Google, cell phones or e-mail. You had to literally pound the pavement to get a story. You had to physically interact with your sources. Bonnie Speed and 411 were your best friends.
 
While I sometimes miss the purity and simplicity of those days, technology has made my job easier and more efficient. It also helps to get content in front of more readers, delivered in a variety of ways designed to make life more manageable for those on the go. But despite the many positives that today's technology offers, it's also cut the journalism business at its knees in many respects.
 
Hardly a week goes by that a subscription representative from The Plain Dealer doesn't knock on doors in my neighborhood, encouraging us to pay to have the newspaper delivered to our homes. That's because many would-be subscribers elect to view news content—for free—on the newspaper's website. Gone are the days where you waited for the familiar "thwack" on your driveway and raced out to view the day's headlines. Now, you can hit the Internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to get news practically as it happens.  
 
Technology has revolutionized the way we seek out our news and what we expect from the people responsible for bringing it to us, but it's also had some unintended consequences that someone should have predicted and taken steps to prevent. With paid readership slumping, advertisers have been shying away from print products. Newspaper budgets have been slashed, newsroom pink slips have become de rigueur and some of the most respected publishers in the nation have closed up shop. Worse yet, Average Joes with a laptops have proclaimed themselves "bloggers" who "report" the news—with no formal training or understanding of how to properly gather information, and sadly, often with an elementary grasp of proper spelling and grammar.  
 
So I found myself shaking my head at a recent report about Harvard University Law School Prof. Larry Lessig's campaign to make scientific articles available to the general public instead of published in subscription-locked journals. Speaking to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) last month, Lessig—a political activist and proponent of reduced legal restrictions on copyright and trademark—reportedly argued that copyright "chokes" creativity and inhibits the progress of science. Science, Lessig told CERN, is a field where Internet access is unnecessarily restricted to privileged scholars. Copyright "architecture," he added, is "obsolete" and needs to protect copyright as an essential tool for creation—with the recognition that sharing is at the core of the architecture of the Internet.
 
Questions about the copyright of scientific writings have been debated for a few years now, and Lessig has strong supporters. Those who disagree with his arguments wonder how opening up access to this type of content will affect its quality, and if the general public would actually benefit from having access to highly technical content.  
 
They're right to ask these questions. While I don't have an opinion on where this debate should go, and the arguments being presented are materially different from what's happened to the news business, I do believe the realities facing the journalism business today can serve as a valuable object lesson for the questions being presented by Lessig. Most newspapers failed to realize the impact that technology and the Internet would have on the quality of news reporting. As news organizations continued to invest in obsolete technology, consumers—with their rabid curiosity for new technology—changed the game. So let's ask smart questions and come up with an effective game plan, before the clock runs out on us.


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