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Monday, December 18, 2006

The case against the Google journal-digitization project

Dorothea Salo, Control your bits, Caveat Lector, December 17, 2006.  Excerpt:

Well, hereís a position I never thought Iíd find myself in: disagreeing with Peter Suber. In his comments to the news that Google is offering to digitize journal backruns for free, he says that he doesnít see any downside for publishers who donít already have a digitized backrun.

I do. I see a ton of downside, so much downside that I donít think any self-respecting journal should take this deal. I do agree with Suber that should Googleís offer be accepted by a lot of publishers, open access would benefit hugely, at least in the short term óand to be honest, knowledge of that immediate short-term benefit is making it very hard for me to write this post....

My stubborn objection to the shape of this deal stems from my ebook days, and boils down to this: never, ever, EVER agree to a digitization deal that doesnít leave you in control of a copy of the bits....

According to Suber, Google isnít demanding de jure exclusivity. You donít like what Google does to your journal, youíre free to shop it around elsewhere for re-digitization. Looks good on the surface, but letís be real here: what library or other digitization shop is going to work with a journal thatís already done a Google run, unless the journal coughs up a whale-load of cash? ...

Quality? I scoff. We know from the book project that Google is doing crappy work.  Weíve seen it. And thatís just the scanning! We also know theyíre not going to proof their OCR results, much less mark them up. (Has Google even heard of the NLM DTD suite, I wonder?) Journal publishers can do better, and should if they consider themselves responsible agents of scholarly communication....

Thereís no way that I see for a publisher to withdraw its material from Google once the contract is signed; as an OA advocate, I love that, but if I were a publisher, Iíd hate and fear it....

Preservation? Google isnít signing up with CLOCKSS or Portico that Iíve heard, nor is it allowing its publisher partners to do so....

Comment. It may seem odd that I agree with nearly all of Dorothea's critique here and disagree only with her conclusion.  Yes, it's better to control the bits than not (which I said in my last post); the journal scans should be higher in quality than the book scans; and preservation matters.  We agree that the deal could be better than it is, even if we disagree about the amount.  But the next question is whether it's better than nothing.  I think it clearly is.  For many journals, it's this deal and OA via Google or it's no digitization and no OA for the indefinite future.

In short, improving the deal would better than accepting it in its current form, but accepting it as is would be better than rejecting it.

Dorothea rightly distinguishes the appeal for OA advocates from the appeal for publishers, and I should be more precise.  When I say the deal is better than nothing, I mean that it's better by a wide margin for OA and better by a somewhat smaller margin for publishers.   But it's only worse than nothing for publishers who don't want OA for their back runs or who have a better way to get it. 

Dorothea seems to admit that most publishers don't have a better way to get it.  That is, we agree that most journals won't be able to take advantage of Google's non-exclusivity, since they won't be able to find another partner with the cash to pay for re-digitization.  (I've made the same argument about the non-exclusivity of Google's book-digitization program.)  But we have to see which way this consideration cuts.  If publishers don't have a better way to digitize their back run for OA, and they want OA for their back run, then accepting this deal is better than rejecting it.

Conceivably Google's offer will elicit better offers from rivals.  That's roughly what happened with the OCA, which not only gave its digitization partners better terms than Google but also pressured Google to liberalize its own terms (e.g. permitting printing and downloading for public-domain books when it previously barred them).  That would be wonderful, and journals could help the cause by talking to the OCA.  But it doesn't change the balance for the current deal considered on its own.

Update (December 19, 2006). See Dorothea's response to my comments, focusing on ways that publishers might get a better deal from Google or find other digitization partners.