The opportunity cost of paywalled research
May 4, 2013
My eye was caught by this tweet:
And I found myself wondering how often this scenario plays out around the world every day. How many hundreds, or thousands, or millions of people would look at some research if it were zero-cost to do so? How many thousands of valuable conversations never happen because you can’t idly browse at $15 a pop? How many thousands of potentially game-changing sparks never fly off those conversations because they never happen? What amazing insights are we not seeing, and what brilliant inventions will we never get to use?
This is the opportunity cost of paywalling reseach. It’s impossible to measure, and impossible to put an upper bound on it.
I’m reminded of Techdirt’s brief article What If Tim Berners-Lee Had Patented The Web?, which paints a horrible picture of a world far behind where we are now, and not certain ever to reach this point. The economic value of the Internet has been estimated at $300-$680 billion per year in the USA alone. What other innovations might we be missing out on?
No, the Web is not the same thing as the whole Internet; no, patents are not at all the same thing as paywalls; no, most research papers don’t have the potential to give rise to anything as big as the Web. This is not an analogy that should be pushed too far. But the core point is obvious: when we prevent free dissemination of research, we don’t know what we’re missing.