The Dissemination of Scholarly Information: A Question of (In-)Sufficient Instruments

JULY 16, 2008

Sören Auer posted today to the okfn-discuss lists about plans for Open Participatory Research. Reading this I was particularly struck by his mention of ‘open peer review’ as this seemed directly related to some recent ideas of my own. Specifically I’ve been working on an economics paper with an academic colleague on the subject of dissemination of scholarly information. This is still at an early stage but the basic ideas in it are quite simple – as set out in the current introduction which can be found below.


It is well known that in order to (completely) address a given number of (independent) goals one needs an equal number of instruments. For example, if one is seeking to address both congestion and pollution in relation to road-traffic, a single instrument, for example petrol taxes, will be insufficient to address both goals exactly (of course it will allow one to address both goals partially). The same issues arise in relation to the dissemination of scholarly information.

Here too there are multiple independent goals. Traditional academic publishing provides but a single instrument. Originally there was nothing that could be done (for reasons discussed further below), but changes in technology render this restriction to a single instrument unnecessary. Unfortunately, the two-sided nature of the journal market (based on expectations), combined with the current evaluation structure of academia, continue to lock society into this inefficient restriction. Open-access journals provides one, though as we shall argue, not the only, or even most efficient, way to improve the current situation.

Goals and Instruments

Crudely put, the two main goals (or tasks), in relation to the dissemination of scholarly information are:

  • Distribution (transmission of the data/information) – `Making material available for Reading’
  • Filtering/Recommendation – `Deciding what to Read’

It seems clear that these are distinct and hence require distinct instruments for their achievement. Journals can be seen as a single instrument which traditionally have tried to address both ends simultaneously. The deficiency of academic publishing can then be seen as one of insufficient instruments. Initially, because of the limitations of reproduction and distribution technologies, there was little that could be done about this. Today with the advent of the computer and the Internet this is no longer the case and it is possible to these two distinct goals with two distinct instruments.

Why then did restricted-access Journals originally come about? The answer lies in technology, in particular the nature of the technology available in earlier periods to manage distribution (printing and transmission). When many journals were originally started the cost of transmitting information was very high. Journals essentially acted as a club good by which the costs of reproduction and distribution could be (efficiently) shared (the efficiency arising here from economies of scale).

At the same time, given the limited ‘bandwidth’ it was natural for Journals to take on some filtering role in order to economize on the scarce transmission capacity. In this situation, dissemination is limited and with only one instrument available (Journals) and it is natural to tie dissemination and filtering together (with filtering in many ways secondary). Once filtering is being done it is natural for journals to `tie’ material to the journal explicitly via copyright – though at an early stage given the scale economies of journals this explicit tying was not actually necessary and was probably done for simple legal convenience.

With the advent of digital communications, in particular the Internet, bandwidth is no longer scarce. What is now scarce is attention. In this setup the importance of a journal is not its role in efficiently sharing reproduction and distribution costs but its role as a filtering mechanism. However, while when distribution is central it is natural to `add-in’ filtering, it is not natural, or necessary, to tie distribution in to filtering when filtering is central. In fact it seems clear that distribution and filtering can be done entirely separately (i.e. one can have two instruments focused on distribution and filtering respectively). The Open Access movement can be seen as largely about achieving this separation: with open access there is no longer a connection between access/distribution (which would be free) and the filtering mechanism (the choice of which articles go in a particular journal).

That said the `Open Access’ movement still has a large focus on journals – albeit open-access ones. This, in our view, is a mistake. Technology has also affected possibilities for filtering. In particular it is no longer clear why the centralized mechanism of official peer-review and journals is superior to alternative decentralized options. The last decade, has witnessed widespread, and often successful, experimentation with distributed voting and evaluation mechanisms (for example Slashdot’s story-ratings and Google’s link-based site rankings).

Thus, to be more radical, it may make sense not only to remove centralized control of distribution but also centralized control of filtering. A more distributed (market-like?) filtering mechanism would permit the same freedom (and same status?) to participate in reviewing and recommendation as it does in the production of scholarly information. At the same time it would deliver greater transparency, and by permitting `free-entry’ in filtering, would allow greater specialization, greater diversity, increased participation and greater competition.

As such, the gains from going ‘open’ are not simply wider access, but a reduction in the time and energy scholars spend finding and processing research information. Significantly, this second item, which is less frequently mentioned in discussions of ‘Open Access', may well be the most significant.