Tuesday » January 13 » 2004
Napster for nerds
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
If you're in a profession these days, chances are you subscribe to a number of e-mail information services. Chances also are you're pretty overwhelmed by them.
In economics we've got something called the Social Science Research Network. You can sign up for e-mail alerts that tell you when any number of research institutes have new studies ready for reading. One of the best lines I read last year was from an economist who said getting information from SSRN was like drinking from a fire hose. It left him feeling "bloated, soaking wet, but at least potentially fully informed."
That assumes you actually read it all, of course. I currently have 37 unopened SSRN e-mails in my inbox. And I haven't actually been that delinquent. I get maybe 15 a week.
Vestigial Presbyterianism prevents me from deleting them until I've at least skimmed them. That and the fear one of them might contain news of the study that will change my whole outlook on life - or at least give me the grist for an interesting column. The e-mail not opened is like the road not taken.
The way the SSRN works is if you like the abstract they've sent you, you can follow a handy link and download the full study. Most of the time the download is free but some of the institutes want money, usually $5 U.S. per study.
I sometimes pay the five bucks but I must confess - truth in column writing requires it - that what I usually do instead is google the author's personal Web site to see if the paper is posted there. It usually is and - bingo! - the download is free. Think of it as Napster for nerds.
Until last week, I wasn't proud of doing an end run around these institutes' property rights. After all, without SSRN's helpful e-mail I wouldn't have known to check out the author's Web site. But then I read UQAM professor Stevan Harnad's piece ("Knowledge freely given should be freely available," Gazette, Jan.5), arguing anyone who writes for an academic journal that charges for access to its publications should always post the article on his or her Web site so free-loaders like me can get access to it. The idea is to provide open access to research and, thus, maximize the benefits of research-generated knowledge to "the tax-paying society that pays for it."
That would be great if the journals and other distribution services charging for research were performing no useful function. But, in fact, they are providing a crucial function: intellectual triage.
Getting information from the likes of SSRN might be like drinking from a fire hose, but that's much better than drinking from Niagara Falls, which is what tracking research on the Web would be like without the intervention of editors.
But if everyone behaved like me, how would these editors be compensated? If everyone free-rode, only altruists and eccentrics would edit and we'd probably have a lot less editing than we do now. There might not be any less research, but research no one's alerted to isn't much better than no research at all.
The same problem arises in other areas. I actually give to U.S. public television - no guilt here - but lots of people don't. If everyone behaved like them, we might not have public TV.
Likewise, at the moment U.S. consumers are paying the freight for most of the world's pharmaceutical research. We who live in jurisdictions that control drug prices effectively free-ride. If American consumers ever tired of their burden, we'd be in a fine fix.
Free-rider problems of this sort are a classic rationale for government supply of various goods and services.
But the idea that governments would edit academic research, choose TV programming or decide which drugs to develop leaves me thinking maybe I should pay my $5 more often.
William Watson teaches economics at McGill University.
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