Friday, July 29, 2011

What if Libraries were the Problem?

On July 19, Harvard University fellow Aaron Swartz was arraigned for breaking into a network closet at MIT and illegally downloading scholarly articles from a well-known database. Whatever his motivations, his approach was misguided, even bizarre. But if one understands the dysfunctional state of scholarly publishing, one cannot help but sympathize.

Because scholarly journals control peer review and publish research, they have significant influence on the academic appointment process. This influence has paid off for scholarly publishers. For at least twenty-five years, prices of scholarly journals have increased at super-inflationary rates. Every year, universities spend billions buying back the research papers of their own researchers. Adding insult to injury, most of this research was funded by the taxpayer. Academic libraries have been discussing the looming crisis since the mid-nineties and gradually embraced various attempts to provide scholarly research at no or reduced cost to the reader. These modest open-access initiatives have improved access, but they have not bent the cost curve of established journals. The business-as-usual mentality of scholarly publishers is particularly remarkable, in light of the fact that other publishers are facing a major existential crisis.

Most readers gain access to scholarly journals through libraries, which negotiate site licenses for packages of journals while balancing budget restrictions and demands from faculty and students. Libraries are between a rock and a hard place. There is a way out, but it requires acceptance of a fundamental fact: digital information needs its own distribution system. Site licenses are nothing more than a digital implementation of paper journals, developed so that the same acquisition departments and publisher agents can conduct business the way they have always done.

Site licenses sacrifice the essential feature of digital information: unlimited flexibility to divide up and reassemble according to personal and temporal needs. For almost every segment of the economy, the web has been a disintermediating technology. Yet, libraries remain stuck in the banal role of middlemen between their communities and publishers.

Site licenses are not only inflexible, they are anti-competitive. If 15% of a campus wants Journal A, 15% competing Journal B, 10% wants both A and B, and the rest wants neither, the library is effectively forced to buy both A and B. By standing between readers and publishers, libraries unwittingly eliminate competition.

Site licenses create price in-elasticity. With the cost of journals nearly invisible, readers cannot make an honest price-value judgment and they have no incentive to seek and/or develop alternative publications, such as open-access journals.

Site license pricing evolved from paper journal pricing without any basis in a real free market. Academic libraries were a captive market, and scholarly publishers were able to set prices so as to maintain established levels of profitability. Which other publishing business had that luxury during the web revolution?

Negotiating site licenses is expensive. Library staff monitor journal usage and conduct community surveys. Bundling (combining several journals into a “discounted” package) and consortium packages (combining the site licenses of different institutions) further complicate the negotiations. Staff spend countless hours studying usage, meeting with faculty, students, administration, consortium partners, and finally publishers’ agents.

Maintaining site licenses is expensive. Every change to every site license propagates to a multitude of library-managed databases, creating a maintenance headache.

Finally, site licenses do not allow for special circumstances. For example, a growing number of researchers want to use data-mining techniques on the scholarly literature. They need to download tens of thousands of articles, an action that violates the terms of virtually all site licenses. Ironically, actors that owe their existence to research are stifling it.

Libraries must get out of the business of buying and redistributing digital content. This only made sense for information on paper. Redistribution of digital information is done far more effectively on a global scale, as commercial services like Apple iTunes, the Amazon Kindle Store, and Netflix have proven. Because of economies of scale, national and international distribution systems (whether commercial or noncommercial) have the technological resources to provide information customized to individuals. Most libraries can only cater to the typical person of their community. Libraries would remain a resource for users that need help locating information, but there is no reason to couple the advising role and the purchasing role. New funding mechanisms that replace current library subsidies could put users in charge of their own information purchases. This would create a free market for scholarly information behind pay walls.

Meanwhile, freed from their role as middlemen protecting the publishers’ pay walls, libraries could concentrate on activities that add real value: collecting, maintaining, and disseminating the unique information generated by their respective communities. They would dedicate their resources on the dissemination of quality information to as wide an audience as possible.

POSTSCRIPT 1/21/2013: Aaron Swartz died on January 11th, 2013. The circumstances of his tragic suicide are well documented in the news. Having never met or communicated with him, I have no insights to offer on Aaron the person. I also have no particular knowledge about the legal case against Aaron. I can only express that the unnecessary death of this young brilliant mind touched me deeply.
I extend my sincere condolences to Aaron's family.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Virtue of Time

I discovered The Fountainhead in the summer of 1984 and was immediately drawn to Ayn Rand’s clear and rational philosophy, known as Objectivism. What she considered her most definitive work, Atlas Shrugged, offered no new insights and failed as a novel. I found The Virtue of Selfishness, a small collection of philosophical writings unencumbered by artificial story lines, to be much more compelling. My brief infatuation with Objectivism ended with these two paragraphs, which Rand would probably consider some of her least important:

“Observe also that the advocates of altruism are unable to base their ethics on any facts of men’s normal existence and that they always offer “lifeboat” situations as examples from which to derive the rules of moral conduct. (“What should you do if you and another man are in a lifeboat that can carry only one?” etc.) The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats—and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one’s metaphysics.

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.”

This quote is complete with respect to the lifeboat question. Rand does not return to it later in the book. Note how she trivializes lifeboat questions, almost as if she were afraid of the direction in which she would be taken.

In fact, we live in a lifeboat, one floating in space that we share with seven billion others. Disasters may be rare, but they are certainly not marginal and incidental. Moments of crisis define our lives, because we (as individuals and as a society) make some of our most important decisions when cornered. To the extent that our values drive our decisions, our values matter most during crises. We have discovered physics living on lifeboat Earth, and a lifeboat may just be the best place on which to base our metaphysics.

Scientists construct simple models and test them in the lab, computationally, or in thought experiments (introduced by Einstein). In a similar vein, lifeboat questions simplify the world for the purpose of moral thought experiments. Successful models simplify real problems while retaining their essential character. Most lifeboat questions fail in this respect by eliminating the time dimension: Strangers suddenly find themselves in or around a boat. Without a past, they lack any basis for decision-making. Without a future, they lack any motivation for any action in the present. Add a time dimension by giving the strangers a past and a future, and suddenly a lifeboat situation becomes more human, realistic, and ambiguous (within the boundaries of the remaining simplifications).

The most trivial of backgrounds is often sufficient to resolve the moral dilemma. For adventurers on a quest to find utopia, fighting for the boat is a distraction. They have selfish reasons to work together and to fight common dangers. Give the lifeboat actors a different story, say one is a convict and the other his executioner, and each has selfish reasons to kill the other. With time, even a mere moment, it is virtually impossible to be truly indifferent to the other person. Dropped as strangers on lifeboat Earth, we immediately develop relationships. We love. We hate. We are never indifferent. True strangers, like those in lifeboat questions without a time dimension, do not exist. By acknowledging the importance of time, Rand could have solved any lifeboat dilemma without abandoning Objectivism. Depending on the circumstances created by a specific history, there are indeed perfectly selfish reasons for rescuing the other.

The current debate on debts, deficits, and social welfare is dominated on the right by Rand’s objectivist philosophy against wealth redistribution. Given a time dimension, the perfectly selfish case for redistribution is easily made. When we deny an education to a child, we rob ourselves from that child’s potential. Saving just one future Einstein will easily pay back billions invested in education. Inadequate healthcare endangers everyone through increased risk of communicable diseases. Given the virtue of time, even the perfectly selfish Randian needs to share his wealth: not to improve the lives of millions, but to enrich his own life.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Law: What's logic got to do with it?

One of my favorite daily reads is the Volokh conspiracy, a blog by a group of law professors. As one would expect, their arguments are exquisitely reasoned, honed by years of classroom teaching, academic writing, and litigation. Although they have a definite philosophical point of view (libertarian), these scholars apply the law with intellectual integrity, developing their arguments logically from existing law and precedent. However, I cannot help but wonder about the use of logic in law.

In formal logic, the starting point is an axiomatic system, a set of statements assumed as true (axioms) that defines a particular field. The rules of logic are then used to derive theorems within that field. The most famous example is the field of Euclidean geometry, which is built upon Euclid's axioms. When developing an axiomatic system, mathematicians want a system that is consistent, independent, and complete. For our purposes here, we can ignore independence and completeness. The crucial property is consistency: axioms within an axiomatic system should not contradict one another.

Legal analysis applies the rules of logic (for example, A implies B, B implies C, hence A implies C), but it does so outside of anything resembling an axiomatic system. Laws, statutes, and precedents vaguely resemble axioms in the sense that they are assumed to be true. But the legal system is rife with contradictions. When an axiomatic system is not consistent, it contains at least one statement that is simultaneously true and false, and from that statement one can derive an unlimited number of other statements that are simultaneously true and false. In law, one can reduce the inconsistencies by only considering those laws that are deemed relevant to a particular case. No matter which subset of laws one gets to work with, it is virtually impossible for it to be anywhere near a consistent axiomatic system. Formal logic seems doomed in legal reasoning.

In spite of their mutual resemblance, legal logic lives in a universe quite different from formal logic. Legal logic is about convincing others of the merits of a case. A legal argument is successful only if accepted by some authority, and this acceptance lasts only until a higher authority overturns it. With every decision, legal authorities help shape the nature of successful legal argument. This creates a legal logic that evolves over time and reflects the nature of the power of the state. The law is about power, not logic... Who knew?