Here's a development in OA that might be considered, well, a little leftfield: Greg Restall has submitted an RSS feed of the metadata of his research opus to iTunes, to enable interested parties to locate and download the full text of his articles (either by receiving the file as an RSS enclosure, or by using the URL in the enclosure to link to the file on Greg's site).

Although Greg admits that "using iTunes in this way is just a bit of a joke", this is an interesting (and, in some quarters perhaps, alarming) development of the self-archiving idea. Whilst Greg's agreements with his publishers allow him to make a version of his papers freely available (so there's no copyright concerns in this case), it's how others might respond to, and develop, the concept that rings alarm bells. For example, Greg's reader Fernando Gros is already suggesting that all journal articles should be thus distributed, thereby saving users from having to pay to access research.

Trying to treat academic research in the same way as digital music files is not a new idea; Leigh Dodds has pointed me at a paper from 20041, which touches on this idea from the reverse angle i.e. why it is more complicated to download/manage academic papers than MP3s. While the authors' pains have to an extent been resolved since, by online reference management/bookmarking tools such as Connotea or CiteULike (which both launched later that year), and by the increase in XML as a format for online articles (which unites the full text and metadata in one file), their issues with full text availability remain.

Ay, there's the rub. Fernando Gros is confusing availability of metadata in iTunes with free availability of full text (probably because Greg's full text just happens to be free, so can be served up along with the metadata). Fernando's suggestion that publishers "rethink their distribution" and take advantage of iTunes misses the pretty obvious point that publishers already distribute their metadata widely, and via more appropriate, and in some cases more accessible, channels (think, for example, PubMed, which is freely available and, unlike iTunes, doesn't require you to have a plugin to use it).

Ultimately, of course, this is not a new issue. If a publisher is "green", i.e. allows authors to self-archive their papers for open access, then iTunes is just another potential self-archiving channel. What Greg's use of iTunes, and the responses it provoked, highlight is the lack of awareness of existing repositories amongst many of those who are best placed to use them, and perhaps also an underlying need for greater repository functionality, to help users quickly locate, collate and share relevant research.

We've been mulling over the implications of this, and had some ideas about what repositories could usefully do that might encourage increased usage by publishers:

  • accept metadata with a link to the full text (many of them now do)
  • accept metadata via RSS feed (ditto – but:)
  • what if access rights metadata could be embedded into the RSS feed?
  • could the repository's reader then grab the full text as appropriate based on "its" access rights?
  • as always with RSS, though, this represents problems with statistics – if a tool is automatically downloading the full text, how can the usage be tracked?
And finally ... following the iTunes metaphor to a conclusion, Leigh also went back to the core2 of the iTunes story to consider how it might be analogised to distribution of scholarly research; consider this posting on ITWire – "Imagine a retailer being able to dictate pricing policies to the world's four largest wholesalers of a market segment. Well that's the position Apple is now in with iTunes." Ultimately, iTunes' success overwhelmed Universal, Warner, SonyBMG and EMI's reservations about its 99¢/track policy, and at the end of the rocky road of negotiation, they had to agree to continue supplying their music to be sold at the flat price.

Could a reasonable, flat, wholesale price be a more realistic answer to the great OA debate?

1 Howison, J. and Goodrum, A.. Why can't I manage academic papers like MP3s? The evolution and intent of Metadata standards. Presented at the UMUC Colleges, Code and Copyright, June 2004.
2 Sorry, couldn't resist.

With thanks to Leigh for provocative discussion and digging out the examples he cited :)