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February 17, 2008

Harvard Debating Open Publishing: Yet Newspapers Still Don't Get It

Everyone knows the newspaper industry is in trouble: circulation numbers are down and there a lots of staff layoffs (most recently at the NYT). I talked about it soon after Sam Zell bought the Chicago Tribune and blamed Google for killing the newspaper industry.

While the mainstream media/publishing still don't get it (free your content, syndicate it everywhere and then make money from the ad revenues and from the publicity/consulting/speaking engagements that come from having the best (and most well-known) talent), the ivory towers of academia are starting to get it.

NYT reported earlier in the week that Harvard is proposing that its professors publish their scholarship free on the web. This is a big step because we all know the entrenched motto for professors of "publish or die," so the fact that a university, Harvard no less, is debating this type of monumental shift towards free and open is amazing.

  Free Birma 
  Originally uploaded by (Erik).

What's truly important here is not the money that Harvard professors might lose from the royalties they make from publishing their article in those fancy (read: expensive) academic journals. And it's not about the fact that we witnessing the potential demise of those academic journals (we've heard that defense from the RIAA and MPAA, I note this in my list of takeaways below) because of the web yet again destroying a traditional, old media business model.

What's important here?

The formal recognition that what makes professors and their scholarship truly valuable (in the economic sense) is their knowledge and the recognition of that expertise by the greater world at large.

When publishing and writing on the web is practically free, then your reputation as an expert in a given field becomes the scarce good, not the physical good that used to be a scarce good (because of the high price of academic journals; publishers could limit supply through the need for peer-based reviewing, the costs of the reviewing processes, and the costs of producing hard copies of the journals, all of which artificially drove up prices).

None of this is ground-breaking if you've been paying attention to the market forces at work on the internet but the newspaper and publishing industries don't seem to get it.

Other key points (some which I already touched upon):

  1. Free is even hitting the ivory towers of academia, a place typically slow to change-- that's a sign of the tide changing

  2. This would be an opt-out system; as Lessig has advocated for copyright renewals, it makes sense that the content goes free unless you make a specific note to the contrary

  3. Destroying a business model is no defense for maintaining a closed, proprietary systems

  4. The opponents of open publishing are using the same arguments as RIAA and MPAA-- that should scare you

  5. As John Perry Barlow has argued, The Grateful Dead didn't make money off albums, they made money by performing-- the same thing for professors. Aside-- I had the lucky chance to join a classroom conversation with Mr. Barlow my senior year at Colorado College and wish I had kept in touch with him.

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