There’s no such thing as free (high quality) digital content

At the event “Why pay for content?” organised by the Publishers Association, representatives from the publishing sector, JISC, and academics, put across opposing views on whether we should pay to access content on the internet or it should be freely and openly accessible to everybody. The content in question referred mainly to textbooks and research/reference material for higher education.

However, about 10 minutes into the debate, the opposing speeakers seemed to agree on one fundamental point: the question posed, “Why pay for content?”, was not the right one.

Rather, we should be asking “Who should pay for content?”.

Some key issues from the presentations and debate that emerged were:

• there was general agreement that for the creation and online delivery of high quality, authoritative content, someone has to pay (commercial publishers, government funding, authors, users), somewhere along the food chain

• the view was put forward that the “free at the point of use” model was the preferred one, but still somebody had to pay, at some point

business models that are being experimented with by open access initiative, have tended to shift the cost of content to the delivery of “added extras” or “value added ” features (eg print on demand, delivery of content in different formats or for different platforms, various degrees of personalisation etc…), while basic content accessible on screen comes for free (see eg Flat World Knowledge )

• if somebody has to pay, then how much should content cost? Commercial publishers agreed that the economics of different sectors would determine this, based on how much value (ie quantified positive outcomes) the purchase of high quality content would bring to one’s business

why aren’t academics depositing their research outputs into open access repositories even if research into this suggests they are not opposed to it? Views ranged from the need to provide researchers with more stimuli or financial rewards to deposit, to mandating it, to allowing for more experimentation (not clear in what, though…)

• a commercial publisher advanced the notion that there is still not enough evidence that free access will deliver more impact, rather the “brand” has proved to be more effective in delivering impact, so it’s not a matter of business models per se

• the landscape is varied and paid-for content and “free” content coexist and will do so for, at least, the medium term future

The issues are many, and the jury is still out on what delivery and sustainability models will eventually prevail.

But in one thing there seems to be consensus: in the majority of cases there is a cost to the creation of high quality, authoritative and reliable content.

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