Information – the ultimate paywall frontier?

by | Oct 10, 2017 | Digital workplace, Information Management

On my desk I have a fast-fading document in a plastic binder. It is arguably one of the most amazing pieces of technical forecasting you are ever likely to come across. In 1978 Lewis Branscomb was the Chief Scientist of IBM and had been invited to speak at the 100th Anniversary of the founding of General Electric. In his presentation ‘Information – The Ultimate Frontier’ he decided to look 100 years into the future, and consider how information would be managed in 2078. If you read this paper you will be struck by the accuracy of his forecasts in terms of technology even if it all happened more quickly that he anticipated. One of the questions he raises is since so many individuals are information-poor how do we use the surplus of information in society to overcome the scarcity of information available to these individuals.

His speech was published in Science in 1979. If you want to download a copy then you will have to pay for it. Now Science is owned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, so it seems paradoxical to me that they want to charge $30.00 for me having access to the paper for just one day. Another example of information pricing gone wrong is the IBM Research Journals. For years these were available free of charge, and contained many outstanding research papers. Just one example would be John Zachman’s paper on enterprise information architecture, published in IBM Systems Journal in 1987. In 2010 the IEEE acquired the rights to the IBM journals and announced that this would bring the journals to a wider audience of researchers. A questionable claim, especially when they now charge an access fee not only on the papers published since 2010 but on all the legacy content which up until that time was available at no charge.

The control that major publishers have over access to academic research worries me. As an academic I can gain access to this research free at the point of delivery but only because Sheffield University pays a very substantial sum of money each year to maintain access. There are signs now that universities are pushing back on these contracts, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. However no attention is being paid to the tens of thousands of private and public sector organisations who could use this research to enhance business and society. There is considerable concern in the UK about flat levels of productivity. Could there be solutions somewhere in the research literature? They will never know. Looking back the people who had the skills to track down this research were the corporate librarians. They have gone now. In theory Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic can list out relevant results but only a modest percentage are listed as being available on institutional services on open access.

I’m very fortunate in being able to bring the outcomes of research projects, especially in information retrieval, information management and collaboration, to my clients. Rarely is there a direct opportunity to use the research but many have been able to take elements of it into their operations. There is no obvious answer to the paywall situation and I’m certainly not in a position to propose one. All I am aware of is the amount of information that lies behind subscription firewalls that should be making a significant impact on digital workplace development, organisational innovation and employee development.

Martin White