Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the BulletSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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2.5 Scholarly information as a commodity
Authors like to think of their articles as precious resources that are absolutely unique and for which no substitutes can be found. Yet a more accurate picture is that any one article is just one item in a river of knowledge, and that this river is rising. Substitutes exist for almost everything. Some people interested in Fermat's Last Theorem will want, for historical or other reasons, to see Andrew Wiles' original paper (Wiles, 1995). Many others will be happy with a reference to where and when that paper was published, and others will be satisfied with various popular accounts of the proof. Even those interested in the technical details will often be satisfied with, and often be better server by, other presentations, such as that in the Darmon, Diamond, and Taylor account of the proof (Darmon et al., 1997).
Thinking about a river of knowledge instead of a collection of unique and irreplaceable nuggets helps explain why scholars manage to function even with a badly flawed information system. Even though in 40% of the cases, a desired book cannot be retrieved from a desired book cannot be retrieved from the library's shelves, usually some other book covering the same topic can be found. Spending on libraries by research universities is correlated most strongly the total budgets, and very weakly with quality. Harvard spends about $70 million per year on its libraries, verus $25 million for Princeton. Yet would anyone claim that a Harvard education or scholarly output is almost three times as good as that of Princeton?
The Internet is reducing the costs of production and distribution of information. As a result, there is a flood of material. Much is of low quality, but a substantial fraction is very good. Before looking whether scholars are using this material let us consider usage of print material.