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Magazines > Information Today > March 2004
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Information Today
Vol. 21 No. 3 — March 2004
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 (
, 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 scientific findings."

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 Publishers—In 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 pro quo.

Libraries—In 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 Patrons—In 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.

Googlers—In 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 Industry—Copyright 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 blood.

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
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