Alice brought this up, and it's been on my mind lately too:
Funny, I attempted to have a conversation with a professor about this subject recently. He came and sat at our table during lunch and I volunteered that we were more comfortable searching for references for a paper we had to do for his class using Google than using the library's paid, proprietary academic databases. And there were a certain number of scholarly journals that actually did post their publications online for public access.
Charlie on cyberdash wrote a very interesting entry on how we should emphasize the distribution of knowledge rather than merely the distribution of technology, which is a great point. He also links to a Santa Clara University symposium that convened to address the issue and discuss creating a "digital commons" to alleviate "social and economic problems in poor countries":
- Some said it was time to rethink intellectual property laws that often prevent poor countries from tapping into useful innovations and technology. ``We should recognize that intellectual property rights are competing with basic human rights,'' said Raoul Weiler, head of a European think tank.
So I suggested that it would be of more value to both the authors and the publications to make their content more widely available. If more people knew about it -- then, I would think, they'd be more cited, their profile would rise, and their perceived worth would increase.
Sadly, all the prof could think of was the existing model: The publications surely must charge for access in order to exist and continue publishing.
I really tried to encourage him to think outside of the box. Since scholarly publications are generally run by not-for-profits, it's their continued existence that counts, not the percentage of profit above breakeven. What if there were a model that made it possible for publications to exist financially, but still publish their information for free? Wouldn't that benefit both sides, authors and publications?
That's when he followed up with an argument so strange I think I just looked at him and blinked unbelievingly -- that if a paper were so successful in its online freedom that everyone had read it, then it would be valueless because no one would want it any more. (As if the ubiquity of Mickey Mouse has done anything to hurt Disney's brand.)
And this guy teaches technology-related classes. I just hope his students are smart enough to know when to question him.