The tension between DRM and academic publishing

By Bruce Barton
5 February 2006

With respect to DRM, what strikes me as both interesting and a challenge for university presses is the tension between the mission they serve and the business model under which they operate. Their mission, of course, is the certification and dissemination of scholarship. The business model comprises a number of things, most notably, the direct recovery of costs from readers. The tension follows from the most common cost recovery strategy: by restricting access to scholarship to only those readers who have paid for access, presses limit distribution and therefore, potentially, dissemination. I say "potentially" because in some disciplines I imagine presses reach the 200 people in the world capable of or interested in reading the most arcane of their publications. (Libraries purchase access for the communities they serve. Access nearly always implies that someone has paid for it.)

DRM is simply the implementation of this cost recovery strategy for electronic media.

What's wrong with this?

All would be well if purchasing power were unlimited. It isn't. And consequently scholarship is not thoroughly nor, one should note, equitably distributed. To the extent that this is true, university presses are failing their mission.

Distribution is not the same as dissemination. To disseminate the publisher must in addition to distributing scholarly materials notify readers that these materials exist. But in the electronic world, both notification and second-copy distribution costs are dropping dramatically. Let's assume for a moment that universities, scholarly societies, or other sources of funding were to pay for certification (managed peer review) and first copy costs. Then there would be no significant costs remaining and no need for DRM as a means of extracting payment in exchange for access. In effect, these funding sources are already paying for the production of scholarship. And compared to those costs, the cost of publication is tiny. There is certainly a precedent for this approach to publishing: a portion of research grants routinely go to paying for the page charges commonly assessed by scientific journal publishers.

Moreover, as Steve Izma points out, the same funding sources are paying much of the DRM fees. It seems like madness to suffer the transaction costs involved in this cost recovery model.

The way out of this?

I do not expect to see it coming from within the university press or the library communities. Budgetary expectations are too entrenched. I think that it is more likely that we will see a new generation of scholars organizing peer review and publication amongst themselves and deciding for their peers that this counts towards tenure and promotion. And they will teach their graduate students where to look for the best scholarship (as their teachers taught them). They will publish to whomever can find them and the good stuff by virtue of its citation network will rise to the top of Google's hit list (assuming Google doesn't make you pay to get there).

About the author: Bruce Barton is an eLearning Tools Developer with Academic Technology at DoIT, a unit of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He specializes in server-side system design and Java development. Prior to joining DoIT, Bruce worked for the University of Chicago Press where he led successful efforts in eBook publishing and eCommerce. He has organized workshops and been a frequent speaker and author on the effective use of technology in scholarly publishing.