Quid Pro Quo
By Dick Kaser
On March 1 and 8, the British House of Commons is scheduled to hold its first
hearings on the publication of scientific research. It will consider whether
the way research is currently published and distributed limits access, whether
the government should support open access journals, and related policy issues
In the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences (not a federal agency) took
up the topic last May in a 2-day symposium titled "Scientific, Technical, and
Medical Publishing and Its Implications."
While recently perusing the transcripts of that open discussion (http://www7.nationalacademies.org/
I happened across a statement by Bruce Alberts, president of the academy. He
said, "The act of publishing is quid pro quo, in which authors [of scientific
papers] receive credit and acknowledgement in exchange for disclosure of their
So, in other words, the scientist gets a byline in exchange for his or her
willingness to share the information. Quid pro quo.
I got to thinking about publishing in general as quid pro quo. The following
are some other things I think could fairly be said about how it really works:
Commercial Journal PublishersIn exchange for handling
the mundane tasks of editing, producing, marketing, and distributing the scientific
community's outpouring of works, the publisher gets to make a profit. Quid
LibrariesIn exchange for the right to distribute
copyrighted works to their
patrons or user communities for free, libraries have to buy or license the
works. Quid pro quo.
Library PatronsIn exchange for getting to access
copyrighted works for free, someone in the community (maybe even you) will
have to pay for it via higher taxes. Quid pro quo.
GooglersIn exchange for getting to search through "all
the information in the world" for free, you'll need to click through to
some advertisers once in a while. Quid pro quo.
Recording IndustryCopyright may be the exclusive
right of the copyright holder, but the only reason that's worked in the past
is because the onerous cost of identifying and going after individual abusers
acted as a natural check-and-balance system to keep copyright owners restrained.
Quid pro quo.
Here's the long and short of it: Everything about information and how we
obtain and use it is one big quid pro quo. You scratch my back, I'll scratch
yours. It all works as long as neither party scratches to the point of drawing
My advice to the House of Commons this month? Take it easy, guys. The information
world is kind of like an ecosystem. It's based on complex and interwoven social
protocols and mechanisms. Little pieces may seem irrelevant or imperfect, but
that doesn't mean bioengineering some of them won't result in unintentional
trade-offs someplace else.
Ladies and gentlemen, lords and ladies, it's all about quid pro quo.
Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of
content. His e-mail address is email@example.com.