guest post by Christopher Lee
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, scientists (and mathematicians) simply wrote letters to each other to discuss their findings.
In cultured cities, they formed clubs for the same purpose; at club meetings, particularly juicy letters might be read out in their entirety. Everything was informal (bureaucracy to-science ratio around zero), individual (each person spoke only for themselves, and made up their own mind), and direct (when Pierre wrote to Johan, or Nikolai to Karl, no one yelled “Stop! It has not yet been blessed by a Journal!”).
To use my nomenclature, it was a selected-papers network. And it worked brilliantly for hundreds of years, despite wars, plagues and severe network latency (ping times of 109 msec).
Even work we consider “modern” was conducted this way, almost to the twentieth century: for example, Darwin’s work on evolution by natural selection was “published” in 1858, by his friends arranging a reading of it at a meeting of the Linnean Society. From this point of view, it’s the current journal system that’s a historical anomaly, and a very recent one at that.
I’ll spare you an essay on the problems of the current system. Instead I want to focus on the practical question of how to change the system. The nub of the question is a conundrum: how is it, that just as the Internet is reducing publication and distribution costs to zero, Elsevier, the Nature group and other companies have been aggressively raising subscription prices (for us to read our own articles!), in many cases to extortionate levels?
That publishing companies would seek to outlaw Open Access rules via cynical legislation like the “Research Works” Act goes without saying; that they could blithely expect the market to buy a total divorce of price vs. value reveals a special kind of economic illogic.
That illogic has a name: the Walled Garden—and it is the immovable object we are up against. Any effort we make must be informed by careful study of what makes its iniquities so robust.
I’ll start by reviewing some obvious but important points.
A walled garden is an empty container that people are encouraged to fill with their precious content—at which point it stops being “theirs”, and becomes the effective property of whoever controls the container. The key word is control. When Pierre wrote a letter to Johan, the idea that they must pay some ignoramus $40 for the privilege would have been laughable, because there was no practical way for a third party to control that process. But when you put the same text in a journal, it gains control: it can block Pierre’s letter for any reason (or no reason); and it can lock out Johan (or any other reader) unless he pays whatever price it demands.
Some people might say this is just the “free market” at work—but that is a gross misunderstanding of the walled garden concept. Unless you can point to exactly how the “walls” lock people in, you don’t really understand it. For an author, a free market would be multiple journals competing to consider his paper (just as multiple papers compete for acceptance by a journal). This would be perfectly practical (they could all share the same set of 2-3 referee reports), but that’s not how journals decided to do it. For a reader or librarian, a free market would be multiple journals competing to deliver the same content (same articles): you choose the distributor that provides the best price and service.
Journals simply agree not to compete, by inserting a universal “non-compete clause” in their contract; not only are authors forced to give exclusive rights to one journal, they are not even permitted to seek multiple bids (let more than one journal at a time see the paper). The whole purpose of the walled garden is to eliminate the free market.
Do you want to reform some of the problems of the current system? Then you had better come to grips with the following walled garden principles:
• Walled gardens make individual choice irrelevant, by transferring control to the owner, and tying your one remaining option (to leave the container) to being locked out of your professional ecosystem.
• All the competition are walled gardens.
• Walled garden competition is winner-take-all.
• Even if the “good guys” win and become the biggest walled garden, they become “bad guys”: masters of the walled garden, whose interests become diametrically opposed to those of the people stuck in their walled garden.
To make these ideas concrete, let’s see how they apply to any
reform effort such as selectedpapers.net.
Walled gardens make individual choice irrelevant
Say somebody starts a website dedicated to such a reform effort, and you decide to contribute a review of an interesting paper. But such a brand-new site by definition has zero fraction of the relevant audience.
Question: what’s the point of writing a review, if it affects nothing and no one will read it? There is no point. Note that if you still choose to make that effort, this will achieve nothing. Individuals choosing to exile themselves from their professional ecosystem have no effect on the Walled Garden. Only a move of the whole ecosystem (a majority) would affect it.
Note this is dramatically different from a free market: even if I, a tiny flea, buy shares of the biggest, most traded company (AAPL, say), on the world’s biggest stock exchange, I immediately see AAPL’s price rise (a tiny bit) in response; when I sell, the price immediately falls in response. A free market is exquisitely sensitive to an individual’s decisions.
This is not an academic question. Many, many people have already tried to start websites with similar “reform” goals as selectedpapers.net. Unfortunately, none of them are gaining traction, for the same reasons that Diaspora has zero chance to beat Facebook.
(If you want to look at one of the early leaders, “open source”, and backed by none other than the Nature Publishing Group, check out Connotea.org. Or on the flip side, consider the fate of Mendeley.)
For years after writing the Selected-Papers Network paper, I held off from doing anything, because at that time I could not see any path for solving this practical problem.
All the competition are walled gardens
In the physical world, walls do not build themselves, and they have a distressing (or pleasing!) tendency to fall down. In the digital world, by contrast, walls are not the exception but the rule.
A walled garden is simply any container whose data do not automatically interoperate with and in the outside world. Since it takes very special design to achieve any interoperability at all, nearly all websites are walled gardens by default.
More to the point, if websites A and B are competing with each other, is website A going to give B its crown jewels (its users and data)? No, it’s going to build the walls higher. Note that even if a website is open source (anyone can grab its code and start their own site), it’s still a walled garden because its users and their precious data are only stored in its site, and cannot get out.
The significance of this for us is that essentially every “reform” solution being pushed at us, from Mendeley on out to idealistic open source sites, is unfortunately in practice a walled garden. And that means users won’t own their own content (in the crucial sense of control); the walled garden will.
Walled garden competition is winner-take-all
All this is made worse by the fact that walled garden competition has a strong tendency towards monopoly. It rewards consolidation and punishes small market players. In social networks, size matters. When a little walled garden tries to compete with a big walled garden, all advantages powerfully aid the big incumbent, even if the little one offers great new features. The whole mechanism of individuals “voting with their feet” can’t operate when the only choice available to them is to jump off a cliff: that is, leave the ecosystem where everyone else is.
Even if you win the walled garden war, the community will lose
Walled gardens intrinsically create a divergence of interests between their owners vs. their users. By giving the owner control and locking in the users, it gives the owner a powerful incentive to expand and exploit his control, at the expense of users, with very little recourse for them. For example, I think my own motivations for starting selectedpapers.net are reasonably pure, but if—for the purpose of argument—it were to grow to dominate mathematics, I still don’t think you should let me (or anyone else) own it as a walled garden.
First of all, you probably won’t agree with many of my decisions; second, if Elsevier offers me $100 million, how can you know I won’t just sell you out? That’s what the founders of Mendeley just did. Note this argument applies not just to individuals, but even to the duly elected representatives of your own professional societies. For example, in biology some professional societies have been among the most reactionary in fighting Open Access—because they make most of their money from “their” journals. Because they own a walled garden, their interests align with Elsevier, not with their own members.
Actually that’s the whole story of how we got in this mess in the first place. The journal system was started by good people with good intentions, as the “Proceedings” of their club meetings. But because it introduced a mechanism of control, it became a walled garden, with inevitable consequences. If we devote our efforts to a solution that in practice becomes a walled garden, the consequences will again be inevitable.
Why am I dwelling on all these negatives? Let’s not kid ourselves: this is a hard problem, and we are by no means the first to try to crack it. Most of the doors in this prison have already been tried by smart, hard-working people, and they did not lead out. Obviously I don’t believe there’s no way out, or I wouldn’t have started selectedpapers.net. But I do believe we all need to absorb these lessons, if we’re to have any chance of real success.
Roll these principles over in your mind; wargame the possible pathways for reform and note where they collide with one of these principles. Can you find a reliable way out?
In my next post I’ll offer my own analysis of where I think the weak link is. But I am very curious to hear what you come up with.