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Digital access as a win-win situation for knowledge generators and knowledge consumers

Alan Schoenfeld, professor of education and of mathematics | November 17, 2009

More isn’t necessarily better in general, but more sure is better when it comes to access to information. High quality scholarship depends on being able to find and evaluate ideas and information. I want as much access to such published information as possible. And I want my ideas disseminated as widely as possible (for critical examination, of course), even if that dissemination costs me money.

Here’s a case in point. Many years ago I wrote a book on problem solving that has been called a “classic” and is still widely cited today. The book was written for an academic audience and never had a very large market; it’s in some libraries but when it went out of print it wasn’t worth it to the publisher to print another run. Thanks to the used book market on the web, some copies are sometimes available – but if knowledge dissemination depended on original hardcopy being available, the impact of the book would diminish with its decreased availability.  For some years the book existed through the dissemination of bootleg Xerox copies; now PDFs of chapters get distributed. Of course I don’t get royalties when someone copies or scans the book. Who cares? I’m not interested in the royalties, I’m interested in the ideas getting out.  If the book’s up on the web, in its entirety, that’s better for everyone.

So I see digital access as a win-win situation for knowledge generators and knowledge consumers. As a producer, I want my stuff to be accessible. And as a consumer/researcher, I know my work will be better if I have access to things I might not otherwise be able to get my hands on.

Comments to “Digital access as a win-win situation for knowledge generators and knowledge consumers

  1. Information can be detrimentally powerful in the wrong hands. Although it is virtually impossible to police, there must be some policing system that can be implemented.

  2. I agree to your point, professor. Classic book publishing has a threshold that the book must has many potential readers, or else you should pay the publishing money by yourself. And, if the circulation is not enough, the readers can not find it easily in bookshops. Digital distribution helps a great in this. Thank you!

  3. Very interesting post,“Unfortunately, I’ve had terrible experiences releasing my books in electronic form. Twice in my career, ‘blind’ people e-mailed me, requesting a PDF of one of my books. Both times, I sent one over–and both times, it was all over the piracy sites within 48 hours, free for anyone to download.

    “I’ve got a mortgage and three kids to put through college, and it broke my heart! Unfortunately, the bad apples have once again spoiled it for everyone else.”

    Now, I realize that my position is unpopular in some circles. And the piracy issue really does bum me out.

  4. Reader Rob Fox illustrates something that has been noted in previous generations of research on scholarly publication: digital distribution can actually lead to sales that would not otherwise have happened. We have made the mistake of thinking that digital access will kill sales of books; but it can also get a wider potential audience, some of which will want to own the whole thing. But the economics of print (real costs rising) may mean that soon, the person who wants to own their copy will own it by downloading it to an ebook reader– and again, what we authors need to be thinking about isn’t how to conserve the formats we have gotten used to: it is how to ensure that new formats serve our interests, not just those of vendors.

  5. I applaud Prof. Schoenfeld’s stance on “Open Format” inasmuch as making essentially ALL ideas freely available via the internet. MIT follows a similar philosophy, contrary to Harvard whose professors have recently proposed a “contract” with students to prevent the collaborative posting of students’ lecture notes on the basis of intellectual property (IP) (this should prove an interesting case). The only way to strictly preserve IP of an idea is to never utter it in the first place. I often glean an idea from a conversation, lecture or article and then embellish it or apply it in a different context and then pass it along in the spirit of the continual accumulation of human thought that has brought civilization to where we are today. I do empathize with the issue of costs involved in research and publication of ideas not being covered when the author loses copyright control and misses out on royalties. It seems a simple case of economics: If the material is interesting enough to sell books and to book paid seminars by the author, then the author stands to recover costs and perhaps make a profit. To the contrary, why would the author continue to engage in the activity? Sort of a new twist to the “publish or perish” concept. I will often pay the cash for a hard-copy of a worthy book that I’ve partially read on-line, just to add it to my collection (plus I like being able to write notes in the columns and dog-ear special parts). Though ideas can be valuable, they cannot produce wealth unless they are shared and put into practice (“a penny for your thoughts” is not always profitable). Finally, to make an important distinction, data, as distinct from ideas, behaves much more like property than an idea does and data ownership is another issue. I think that the concepts of IP and copyrights will soon dissipate into the wonderful ether of cyber-space, not by design, but by virtue of humans’ thirst for knowledge and the porosity of man-made laws versus the free economy of voluntary, human exchange.

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