There are a few key ways to make content free to the user. Some journals do it selectively, based on editorial criteria most often. Open access advocates seek to change the information landscape by flipping the payment model to an author- or sponsor-pays model, allowing readers to access information without toll barriers. Other publishers, mostly outside of STM publishing, use ad models, metered or not, to grant free access to large audiences.
For open access advocates and editors choosing to make information free, the idea is that access barriers are the only things keeping people of all types — patients, students, parents, and professionals — from a vast storehouse of information. Removing the barrier of a paywall supposedly unleashes a vast treasure trove of knowledge to an eager, adamant audience.
Even if you accept that access was and continues to be a problem — a stance that usage data often belie and that studies find to be hard to justify with facts — the abundance of information open access and other models (e.g., advertising-supported, search optimization supported [content farms]) has created may have only revealed new barriers, some much more difficult and more costly to address. A recent, compelling essay by Maria Popova from the Nieman Journalism Lab raises the possibility that abundance has created new types of scarcity — a scarcity of motivation, a scarcity (via obscurity) of rare items, and a relative scarcity of useful curators and guides.
Popova makes an interesting distinction to begin with, one that open access rhetoric might do well to pay attention to, for obvious reasons — that is, Popova draws a distinction between “accessibility” and “access.” From her perspective, what we would call “open access” is really “open accessibility,” meaning it’s possible for people to access the published information without encountering a paywall. That’s accessible. But “access” is something more complex — it has to do with knowing the information exists, being able to find it, and then accessing it.
It isn’t access until it’s accessed.
The era of abundant information may actually have a demotivating effect on people, Popova suggests. It’s like when you live in a city but get stuck in routines and never explore it. Visitors arrive, enthusiastic about visiting all the spectacular places they’ve traveled hours to see, while you sheepishly realize that you’ve never been to any of them even though you live mere minutes from them. These great places are so accessible to you that you never bother to visit them. Just knowing they’re nearby is enough, and is actually somewhat demotivating. You’ve traveled around the world to see a 300-year-old building, but never once visited the one 20 minutes away. Abundance and accessibility actually demotivate exploration. As Popova writes, when we encounter a great new resource . . .
. . . more likely than not, we shove it into some cognitive corner and fail to spend time with it, exploring and learning, assuming that it’s just there, available and accessible anytime. The relationship between ease of access and motivation seems to be inversely proportional because, as the sheer volume of information that becomes available and accessible to us increases, we become increasingly paralyzed to actually access all but the most prominent of it — prominent by way of media coverage, prominent by way of peer recommendation, prominent by way of alignment with our existing interests. This is why information that isn’t rare in technical terms, in terms of being free and open to anyone willing to and knowledgeable about how to access it, may still remain rare in practical terms, accessed by only a handful of motivated scholars.
EndNote, citation management tools, special directories on our hard drives, bookmark lists, and so forth — all are ways to know where information is without actually accessing it fully. Many times over the past decade, I’ve encountered users who manically store PDFs and images on their hard drives, yet never access them again. It’s the information packrat mentality — these same people probably would have ripped and filed articles in another era. But once they “have it,” their motivation to explore, understand, or contemplate the information evaporates. Accessibility is actually demotivating to access. If I know I can get it any time, why bother?
Then there’s the problem of what people know about and share, store, or recall. Popova argues that because general search engines drive so much awareness — and because the first page of results dominate — obscure items are made even more obscure, despite their accessibility. In fact, general accessibility amplifies the prominence of general information resources (recall the rise of Wikipedia entries in search results a few years ago), making perhaps more valuable but less accessed information even more obscure than it was before.
The asymmetry of search engine algorithms makes the rare even rarer.
Dealing with this obscurity is a challenge curators must answer, Popova believes, offering several compelling examples of hidden gems that were as accessible as anything, but not accessed much — until a curator with an audience pointed to them and explained why they mattered. When this happened, access shot through the roof, even though accessibility changed not a jot. As Popova writes:
. . . since curiosity is the gateway to access, we can’t outsource access, even in the context of the greatest possible accessibility.
Publishing more and more information creates a commensurate obligation to curate, highlight, explain, elucidate, point out, identify, contextualize, and share the information we’re putting out for our audiences. At our PowerPoint Karaoke session at the SSP Annual Meeting in Boston, Geoff Bilder suggested that a valuable new service might be to curate out the most interesting papers from PLoS ONE. In concept, I completely agree. In practice, who would or could pay someone to do that? PLoS ONE is a mishmash of domains, while commercial models are usually successful when they’re targeted at an audience, not around a storehouse of content. Which audience would the curator address?
Thinking that accessibility is enough to guarantee access falls well short of the mark. However, paying curators, shepherds, editors, guides, and commentators is something we don’t have a model for right now, at least not at the scale we need. And there is often no academic incentive for doing it.
Yet, in order to turn the potential into the actual, that’s precisely what our information age might need the most.