Well, that's because now that you have patiently read all these lengthy explanations - and I am sure you have - I can finally draw the conclusions. See, if I say “love” before I've said “Money” “doesn't” and “buy,” you wouldn't get the message, would you?
Thus, I will now finally tell you why financing Open Access through author-pay is a bad idea, why science journalism is more Fiction than Fact, and will answer The Question Of All Questions: Who killed the blogosphere?
Yes. You will get answers to all this if you stay with me for a little while. It lies at hand now, and this hand isn't even invisible. Ready?
Okay! To summarize the most important points of my earlier writings: For a system to work towards its primary goal that system has to be endowed with a feedback mechanism. This mechanism has to allow for evaluation of the system's status, and needs to have enough flexibility to react to this evaluation, depending on whether a change works in favor or against achieving the primary goal. In social systems, feedback is most powerful if it arises from incentives on the personal level, meaning from criteria that are both local and immediate - in particular they have to be uncomplicated. The challenging task is to ensure that from these incentives on the micro-level there arises a trend that is desirable also on the long-term and long-distance scales.
Money, Money, Money
An example for such incentives that drive a system's behavior is operation for profit in our economical system. It works stunningly well and has resulted in such a remarkable optimization of our lives that many people have come to believe in its infallibility for guiding us towards happiness, and - with quite an impressive twist of thought - have equated its activity with progress itself. However, though the correlation between economic growth and increasing well-being of a nation's citizens might hold for a long range of GDP, this is a correlation and not an equality. It's like your children's growth tells about their health, but what you really want is them to be healthy, and not continue growing eternally. This is what I refer to as the confusion of primary goals (here: health, happiness) with secondary criteria (here: growth/economic growth).
Besides this, it is also well known that operation for profit alone does not take into account many long-term and long-distance effects that a society might strive for. This is typically the cases when a development will not be initialized through individual action, either because the individual would put himself in a disadvantage by taking the action, or because she would put herself into an advantage when she was the only one not taking the action (also known as a "free ride").
Examples might be costly expenses for environmental protection (putting the company in a disadvantage with competitors who don't have these expenses), or everybody spending a tenner, so somebody can fix all these potholes (advantage of profiting from the improved pavement nevertheless if enough other people spends some bucks). This is also known as the collective action problem.
These goals are thus often achieved by changing the incentive structure through fees, taxes or simply legal restrictions. The point of balancing the economical system with a political one is that the latter gives us a way to include the pursuit of goals that would fail when only looked at from the individual point of view.
Must be funny
Money however is not the only immediate and local feedback that drives our societies. For a different kind of feedback, take the blogosphere. Here, the currency is attention. You trade it through links and comments, and count it in visits per day. Another sort of feedback are reviews at Amazon, PageRank or more generally every kind of rating. In many cases, these feedback cycles are related to money, but a priori they are goals by themselves.
However, we all have to live from something, and that something still has to be paid. Thus, whatever service it is you are asking for, somebody has to pay for it. The internet offers an astonishing amount of information - and it's free! Or is it? Well, the price you pay is that the web has gotten swamped with advertisements, because that's the only readily available way to get the money in (unless you belong to the lucky few that can survive on donations).
That wouldn't have to be the case, but currently that is where the incentives are. The more visitors you attract, the more you get in with ads, meaning the only criterion is how much people like what you put on the web. This is a feedback. It is immediate, and it results in a learning curve. This feedback however leads quite obviously towards populism. If that is your primary goal, then it works. Everything else... will be struggling.
In a rich man's world
Now, why do we see so much bad science journalism and so many over-hyped sensational stories? Because there is insufficient feedback that rewards quality. Quality is just simply not a criterion that is optimized for, and increasingly less so the more funding needs to come from advertisements and via high Google ranking. Here is an extract from an email that I received from a popular science magazine after I remarked some of their advertisements are of scientifically doubtful content:
“[R]emember that ads pay for the content, paper and mailing of magazines. I trust that our readership is bright enough to appreciate the fine work of Scientists and the value of Science to their world and can sift through and filter out advertising that they don't believe is of value [...] It's important to remember that advertising pays for the value of most of a magazine. Subscribers actually only cover a small part of the cost of any magazine.”
Not that this came as a surprise to me, still, it is somehow depressing to have it stated that clearly. There is a tension in this arrangement between the goal of the advertiser and that of the publisher. It takes effort to keep up a tension, and the tendency is towards an equilibrium where advertisements match the reader's interests, for example by dumbing the reader down.
The open access movement has a similar financing problem which is that giving free access to publications doesn't pay off. There is no source for funding of necessary staff and editors. Thus, the money has to come from elsewhere than from the readers.
The most widely used model is that the author pays a charge. Though I am all in favor of open access, this option is a huge mistake if you consider what it means for science in the long run: With traditional publishing you couldn't read a paper if you couldn't afford it. With author-pay you can't publish a paper if you can't afford it. What does the incentive structure look like then? Well, the news is that journals will be interested in having good contacts to affiliations that do financially well. Does that sound like a bias you want to have on the scientific publishing process? Just asking.
The other option is to be financed through advertisements, which suffers from the same problem as journalism that I mentioned above. The incentives don't go towards quality, but towards populism. That also isn't something I want to affect scientific publishing.
There is an obvious solution to the problem. If I mention this in the presence of Americans they stare at me in disbelieve, but it seems to me a logical conclusion from what I've told you above: Open access is a public service. Thus, it should be financed like a public service. That does not necessarily mean neither it needs to be governmentally funded, nor through taxation. There are other options.
One that I discussed with Stefan a while ago is to simply use the existing library committees with a funding that possibly could be much smaller than in the traditional system. Instead of buying subscriptions however, let them rate journals according to criteria of quality and importance and distribute grants according to this. It's a flexible system of evaluation and feedback and has at least a chance to work towards quality.
But really, who killed the blogosphere?
If you read Nicholas Carr's post (and don't miss the postscriptum), you will find that he is not so much bemoaning the death of the blogosphere, but more its commercialization:
“That vast, free-wheeling, and surprisingly intimate forum where individual writers shared their observations, thoughts, and arguments outside the bounds of the traditional media is gone. Almost all of the popular blogs today are commercial ventures with teams of writers, aggressive ad-sales operations, bloated sites, and strategies of self-linking.”And is anybody really surprised by that? As he aptly remarks later “For the lion's share of bloggers, the rewards just aren't worth the effort.” The question is now once again what does the present system with its feedback driven by popularity optimize? Individuality? Hardly.
So who killed the blogosphere? Well, we killed it by omission. It's our choice to set up the systems we operate in such that they work towards what we want. Capitalism isn't the only choice, and its invisible hand is not infallible.
- “What will we do?
What will we say?
When it's the end of this game that we play?
Will we crumble into the dust my friend?
Or will we start this game over again?”
Where is the love? It's in your hands. And these hands aren't even invisible.