Comments on the Publishing Panel from "Scholarship and Libraries in Transition" Symposium
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Moderator: Mark Sandler, University of Michigan
When Google announced its plans to digitize and index the collections of five major research libraries, there was a great deal of scrambling to understand the impact of such a bold initiative. For many librarians and scholars, it meant much greater access to the intellectual work of generations of scholars, and a democratizing of access to the riches of scholarly publishing. For many publishers, however, Google's Book Search initiative appeared to threaten the incentive system that drives commercial publishing: royalty distribution to rights holders for their creative contributions to society. If Google or others could copy and distribute protected works without compensation to the rights holders, then how could publishing survive into the future? The response, of course, is that Google is neither replacing the creative role of publishing or authorship, nor making protected works "accessible" beyond a few key words to let searchers know that the material they are seeking is likely covered in the indexed works. Google believes that its initiative will drive readers to libraries and bookstores in search of printed copies of long overlooked works. Many publishers, however, fear it will siphon off customers satisfied to take what they can get for free.
Our speakers on the Publishing Panel represented three kinds of publishing activity: republishing through digitization of historically significant works; front-list publishing of scholarly and trade books; and alternative campus publishing or distribution of both historical material and new works of scholarship. Representing as they do different sectors of publishing, our panelists provided a diversity of views within the publishing community about the role Web search firms, libraries, and rights-management agencies play in scholarly and creative communication.
Our panelists made several important points that add to the international dialogue about Book Search and related initiatives. One point is that commercial publisher resistance might be mitigated by appropriate remuneration. If value is recognized and compensated, then many — or most — publishers would welcome help in making their output more accessible. All publishers want their content to be discoverable, to have an impact, and to change lives. Certainly authors want this. If rights were cleared, or a strategy were developed to share in direct and ancillary revenues earned by making these works accessible, the commercial publishers would likely support it. While there is pushing and pulling in the current environment about such concepts as "snippets," and "opt-in" and "opt-out" models, no one challenged the underlying principles of both copyright and fair use.
From my perspective as an alternative publisher, I believe that to commodify information and limit its social benefits to those with the means or will to pay is a socially regressive stance that hampers economic growth and social progress. My uneasiness with the argument of some publishers that they should be compensated for the value they've created reflects my view that publishers and authors have already been compensated in front-list sales and never expected to realize additional revenues from the great majority of their out-of-print titles. Digitization and discovery tools have opened up an opportunity to realize unexpected revenue from a print backlist, but it is disingenuous to argue that this revenue was ever part of the incentive to create new content.
A theme common to all the speakers was the value added by publishers (traditional and library-based) in their support for peer review, editing, authenticating, organizing, and archiving content. Many publishers feel that the significance of these roles (and the recognition of the associated costs) is being minimized in current discussions of mass digitization and access to that digitized corpus of scholarly information. The panel members pointed out that the investments and expertise applied by publishers enhance the value and utility of otherwise unfiltered information and communication, thus creating the seeming contradiction of mass digitization of a select body or work.