Almost every day, my email or Twitter feed brings an alert to a “free” report, article, white paper, etc. No payment or subscription required!
It sounds great. In many ways it is the promise of the Internet fulfilled, a world in which a single click brings you the document you are seeking for immediate review or even a deep read.
The reader experience, however, is quite often not exactly that. Instead of a paywall, perhaps to be negotiated through a proxy server or some other authentication mechanism, the reader is faced with a demand for their contact information. Or, even more demanding, they face a requirement to create an account. Use of that account will be tracked and the data fed into an analytics system, likely joined up with data collected elsewhere as well.
Yes, dear reader, in such cases, you have been datawalled.
I found myself thinking about this as I clicked the link in a tweet to read a review of the movie Paywall: The Business of Scholarship. From the tweet I saw, I was expecting the text of the review to appear. Instead, given the review was published in The Lancet, there was a demand to create an account (or use my existing one if I had one). Given the topic of the movie, I couldn’t resist tweeting out “LOL. Review isn’t OA.” More than one reply came back observing: yes, but it’s free.
True, Elsevier tells you this straightforwardly on the page you encounter: “This article is available free of charge. Simply log in to access the full article, or register for free if you do not yet have a username and password.”
Well, sure, the article is “free” in the sense there is no monetary transaction. But, not free in the sense that I must trade my time and my personal information in exchange for the access. And, I must consent to account terms — e.g., data tracking, analysis, reporting — that I have no mechanism for negotiating. Instead of a paywall, I face a datawall.
Now, of course copyright owners of “free” resources have the right to set the terms of access. They can put up a datawall that demands the exchange of personal information (and thus enables data tracking, reporting, and maybe even aggregation with other datasets) for an otherwise free article.
I wonder how far we will see this extend.
There are already examples of “freemium” open access in which basic reading is available without providing contact information or having an account but other kinds of reading (e.g., downloading full document for annotation) is behind a datawall or paywall.
In preparing this essay, I reviewed a number of publisher websites and government policy documents. Absent from these is mention of whether “free public access” or “APC-funded open access” means access without providing a contact email in exchange or without being required to set up a (free) account. This is a curious silence. It leaves open a future in which publishers and platforms monetize open access through intense data analytics activity tied to user identities as well as APC fees.
With the strengthening publisher-based RA21 approach to authentication, the developing supercontinent of scholarly publishing, and the ever increasing trend to tracking and monetizing user data, as well as the silence on this topic in policy and contracts, personally, the question does not appear to me to be if public and open access publications will be pushed behind a datawall…but rather how quickly.