Information is Abundant, Insight is Rare

Stewart Brand’s iconic quote is usually simplified like so during marches and late night college musings: “Information wants to be free.” That’s reductive.

Brand’s full expression is more thoughtful and sophisticated: “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.”

Advocates of open access publishing, such as myself, often invoke Brand’s short quote. A scholarly open access article, which colleagues vet prior to publication in the process known as “peer review,” is freely available online to anyone. An article that is not open access is only available to subscribers or licensees (usually through a college or university) of a journal.

Open access is possible because, just as Brand predicted, the marginal cost of posting an article online is essentially zero. No printing presses, no postage, no staples, no glue. Besides the ease of distribution, in many cases taxpayers fund the research reported in these articles. This is certainly true for research funded by the National Institutes of Health into cures for debilitating illnesses. Organizations such as the Alliance for Taypayer Access assert the moral imperative for open access.

Publishers lie on the other side of this debate. Scholarly journals are an extremely profitable business, with large profit margins. This is true for both subscription based and open access journals — open access journals derive revenue from publication charges for authors in lieu of subscription or license fees. The difference is that the open access content is available to everyone immediately upon publication, the subscription content is only for subscribers. In either case scholarly publishing is awash with money, even if open access advocates tend to focus only on subscription-based journals.

Subscription journal publishers are in the cross-hairs because they represent the incumbent model that open access publishing seeks to supplant. The publishers know this, and have mounted a vigorous defense of their contributions. Among other virtues publishers tout their management of the peer review process, their stewardship of the final version of articles, and their linking of articles to each other as valuable services. Just as open access proponents cite Brand selectively, so too do publishers. They just emphasize Brand’s second point, about information being valuable.

And so you have these two fighting against each other. Open access advocates scoff that publisher efforts are trivial, and that in any case their principal product relies upon the unpaid labor of academics.

As with all political discourse, here both sides frame the discussion in deceptive and incomplete ways. Open access advocates elide the filtering and credentialing role of publication in particular journals, which saves researchers very valuable time in deciding what to read. Subscription-based publishers obfuscate the fact that the marginal cost of posting an article is zero, in order to perpetuate a scarcity-based economy that was necessary for printed materials but is now antiquated.

This beat has gone on for at least 15 years now. Despite periodic good-faith efforts by publishers and open access advocates to locate “common ground,” common ground does not rally the troops. The sobering truth is that both sides in this debate have more to gain by pleasing their bases than by making concessions that could lead to better outcomes for everyone. Before we throw up our hands in despair, I would like to submit one idea for ending this logjam.

To start this process, let us consider the sentence I bolded from Brand: “The right information in the right place just changes your life.” I offer a friendly amendment to Brand, and say that anything so powerful that it “just changes your life” is an insight.

Insights are what we are really after, not mere information. Open access advocates have strong claims regarding increasing access to research papers. But this is only the first step. If we do nothing else we are simply adding to information overload.

That chestnut phrase, “information overload,” denotes how people are often overwhelmed by the amount of information at their disposal. To some extent this is true for anyone with an Internet connection. It is especially true for researchers who have access to hundreds of thousands of scholarly articles in addition to what they can find on the free Web. For such individuals the challenge immediately becomes separating the wheat from the chaff, the signal from the noise. Information is abundant, insight is rare.

Publisher claims about how they serve as filters have salience because of information overload. And yet, there is no way for even the most intrepid researcher — who applies the most brilliant of filters — to read all of the literature in their field. There is simply too much of it, by many orders of magnitude. Filters make a first cut, but there are deep insights collectively contained within a corpus of mostly unread papers.

This is where computers come in. Text mining, data mining, and data linking on a 21st century scale is a computational effort. This effort will yield the most fruit if all of the underlying content — the papers — are open and available for analysis.

Open access advocates are right that information wants to be free, and publishers are right that information wants to be valuable. That value manifests when information becomes insight. This is value worth paying for. This is how publishers could thrive even in a completely open access world.

In such a world scholarly papers would be considered a natural resource, like the air. Nobody can meter access to the air, but anyone can build an airplane to glide through it and build a business from there. Let’s glide along ourselves, and move from scarcity-based to insight-based economics for scholarly publishing.