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Is Society Biased Against “Openness”? A PLoS Board Member’s Perspective on the Future of the Library in the Digital World

The Arcadia Project is a three-year programme based at the University of Cambridge (UK), which aims to explore the role of academic libraries in a digital age. Naturally, we were delighted that a PLoS board member was selected to give the first Arcadia lecture. As well as serving on the PLoS board and being the founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Professor James Boyle is also the Chairman of the Board of Creative Commons, co-founder of Science Commons, a member of the advisory board of Public Knowledge, and William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School. He was therefore ideally suited to providing an informed and inspiring vision of the future of the library in the digital world.

Professor Boyle challenged the stereotypical image of libraries as conservative, dusty places, arguing instead that they are extraordinary institutions which combine the fundamental roles of archiving, facilitating research and enabling public access to cultural material. Nevertheless, libraries developed in a world where the container for knowledge was the book: only one person at a time could read any one copy of a book, and libraries provided valuable repositories for these documents. In the age of digitised knowledge, books and papers can be read simultaneously be anyone on the planet – in theory, at least. What effect does this have on the notion of the library?

To address this question, we were asked to consider three trends. Firstly, according to Professor Boyle, attitudes towards information dissemination are characterised by a fear of openness. If asked to predict the outcomes of the World Wide Web in 1992, we would have easily predicted the risks of spam, illicit copying, and pornography, and we may have rejected this decentralised model in favour of a closed, carefully-controlled system. In contrast, he suggests, we would not have been able to imagine the blossoming of information and knowledge sharing which the Internet has enabled, nor the dramatic benefits it has brought in areas such as information layering, blogging, open source software, and whistleblowing. This fear of openness, or “cultural agoraphobia”, leads to an asymmetry in our perception of risks and benefits. As a result, we are too reluctant to embrace open systems and methods of production or distribution, and we are not yet able to differentiate effectively between appropriate and inappropriate developments in the sphere of “openness”.

The development of copyright formed Professor Boyle’s second trend: as the cost of copying has decreased to almost zero via the invention of the printing press, copying technologies, audio recording and the Internet, the perceived need for stronger protection has increased – when you needed a monk to copy a book, copyright wasn’t so much of an issue! The third trend which we were asked to contemplate relates to the contrast between the evidence-based nature of most policy-making (for example, in medicine or environmental science) in contrast with the anecdotal or philosophical basis of most intellectual property debates. Although illicit copying is indeed problematic, Professor Boyle proposed that unnecessarily-tight copyright laws lead to even greater losses, such as failed sharing, inability to conduct research, and inability to access material even where the copyright holders cannot be identified. He explained that US copyright laws have been characterised by a “20th century black hole”, whereby is it almost impossible to opt out of copyright and copyright is in place for a period of time which is longer than the commercial life of almost every cultural object. All gates lead into copyright and none lead out, he argued. Although these laws were initially designed to provide an incentive for people to allow access to others, they now achieve the opposite.

In a world of open access and digitisation, therefore, do libraries still have a role to play? Absolutely, concluded Boyle. We should increasingly look to digital libraries to provide “global access to everything”, we should invest in ensuring the stability of digital archives to preserve access to cultural objects in the face of evolving technologies, and we should develop novel ways to use and explore the information which is increasingly becoming available to us. Powerful arguments indeed, which seem to reaffirm the Public Library of Science’s mission statement in all respects.

Nisha Doshi, Publications Assistant, Public Library of Science

Discussion
  1. PLoS and other open-access academic publications represent something else important to our society. In my case, I am a biology/forest ecology student who had to withdraw from school prior to my degree completion as a result of lack of personal funds. However, my desire to know and continue learning as much as I possibly can remains strong (I will resume school as soon as the opportunity makes itself available). PLoS, traditional libraries, and journals that make themselves available inexpensively or freely have become my education for the past 12 months. Because of PLoS and dedication to open access publication, I have been able to keep pace (or, in many cases specialize my knowledge much further) with my conventionally-schooling peers.

    The ubiquitous “society” would do well to realize that openness in publication allows for those, like me, who are kept out of classrooms because of money to continue to gain knowledge of those subjects about which we are passionate.

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