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Magazines > ONLINE > July/August 2010
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Vol. 34 No. 4 — July/August 2010

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Abundance, Scarcity, Value, and Price
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

Several heavy rainstorms hit my part of the world this spring. You’d think the abundance of water would be beneficial to agriculture and amateur gardeners alike. Abundance brings its own problems, however, such as flooding and topsoil washing away. Water scarcity in the western part of the U.S., leading to drought conditions, raised the price of water and initiated rationing. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s California Nevada River Forecast Center, however, most California reservoirs are, as of the end of May 2010, at normal levels. Will this affect how Californians value and price water?

Economic theory has it that abundance correlates to lower prices and scarcity to higher prices. In the information world, we’ve seen an increasing abundance of storage space, bandwidth, and fiber optic networks. Not coincidentally, the amount of free information has skyrocketed. Publishing and online research in an era of abundance presents very different challenges from that of scarcity. Do readers and researchers ascribe the same value to information they pay for as that given to them for nothing?

One publisher testing the limits of pulling information from the free arena is News Corp. As Karen Blakeman comments in her On the Net column, the company may have put an inflated valuation on its content. What happens when scarcity is imposed, “artificial scarcity” in economic terms, but does not correlate to a higher price? With an abundance of information, causing a small piece to become scarce can lead to people overlooking the resource rather than paying for it. The appeal of open science, as documented by David Stuart in this issue, rests on the ability of scientists to freely share data without fiscal constraints. Value rises with abundance rather than diminishing as classic economic theory suggests.

A visit last year to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL; www.rferl.org) started me wondering about dissident voices. During the Cold War, when RFE/RL combined archives with radio stations, dissidents such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel had good name recognition outside communist-dominated countries. Was that due to a scarcity of information outlets? Does today’s abundance of information channels dilute the value of the voices of Middle East dissidents? As RFE/RL shifts its focus to the Middle East and away from archival collections, it competes with a myriad of other information sources, including real-time, citizen-generated, and social networking ones. Although it publishes scarce information on its website, it has not elevated new names to the prominence of last century’s. Value seems related more to gaining attention than to scarcity.

Just as an abundance of rain can damage crops, the abundance of hits in a web search can decrease its research value. What if relevant data is hidden several pages into the results? Semantic search, discussed by Tamas Doszkocs in this issue, promises to deliver more targeted, relevant results, thus increasing value without increasing price.

Approaches to information abundance, scarcity, value, and price change as we move away from traditional economic models. Information professionals today should employ critical thinking to avoid overlooking scarce data hiding in thickets of abundance.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.

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