How is scholarly publishing like using Facebook?

One absurdity of the current scholarly communications system consists of the arrangement by which faculty hand the products of their research over to publishers, who then charge university libraries enormous sums to repurchase access to the resulting articles. Publishers also ask faculty for uncompensated work as anonymous peer reviewers. In a curious disconnect, faculty function as part of a “gift economy”, giving away work in exchange for prestige and potential career advancement, while publishers function squarely as part of the “market economy”.

In truth, almost all of us take part in a similar exchange on a daily basis.

Free web services like Facebook or Google apps can operate as free sites in part because they sell details about your online behavior to companies known as “data brokers”. Facebook alone sells information to four separate companies: Acxiom, Datalogix, Epsilon, and BlueKai. Details on how to opt out of this data collection can be found on this post by the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation. And you thought keeping your regular Facebook privacy settings up-to-date was difficult!

The primary customers of the data brokers are advertisers who use information collected by online services for targeted marketing campaigns. That’s why, following the revelations of NSA data collection, the Onion ran a piece with the ironic headline “Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers”. However, it isn’t hard to imagine that large scale data collection might lead to worse abuses than advertisers sending cheese coupons based on grocery store loyalty card data.

Some scholars predict that “big data” collection could sometimes benefit the public. For instance, epidemiologists could use mobile phone GPS data to track and predict the spread of an infectious disease, thus halting the disease’s progress. Nonetheless, many of the same scholars acknowledge that, due to the potential for misuse of “big data”, an open discussion must occur about the many privacy issues involved.

One such thinker, MIT’s Alex Pentland, has coined the phrase the “New Deal on Data” to describe his proposal for resolving this issue. His plan consists of three tenets: you should have the right to possess your own data, the right to control use of your data by opting-in (with plain language explanations of any possible uses), and the right to dispose of or distribute your personal data as you see fit. Also, just as in other research studies, “big data” projects should anonymize their data sets. Imagine how empowering it would be to control how corporations or scientists make use of the data traces you leave behind in everyday online life.

In Pentland’s proposed data policy, I see yet another similarity to Open Access publishing. The Open Access movement encourages authors to retain copyright on their work, so that they can continue to make use of it as they see fit. And most scholars will choose to distribute their work broadly if it will benefit the public good, for instance, by giving doctors in the information-poor developing world knowledge of a life saving treatment. Perhaps we would do the same with data on our online behavior…it would be nice to have a choice.

Further reading:
Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You