Our editors are desperate for knowledge. They crave sources to use to build Wikipedia, to share with millions of readers around the globe. Many of the most authoritative sources, however, are locked behind paywalls.
Birth of a partial solution
We started The Wikipedia Library to address this. In 2010 research database Credo Reference donated 500 free accounts to our top editors; the lines of editors requesting these accounts piled over. Through 2011 and 2012 we added partnerships from HighBeam Research, Questia Online Library, The Cochrane Library, and JSTOR. Over 3700 accounts have been donated so far.
One Wikipedia Library subscriber reflected on the situation: “Having done the grad school thing (twice!), I’m used to having the resources of a research university library. I still have this, but now need to drive 90 minutes to do my research on campus. Given the comparatively modest resources available at Wikipedia versus a 90 minute drive for comprehensive resources, I find that I’d rather make the drive. There will come a point where The Wikipedia Library’s coverage will be sufficient that the drive is no longer worthwhile and instead I spend those 180 minutes editing. We’ll get there; but that point is a ways away.”
Another wrote, “I’m fortunate to work at an institution that pays for access to a great deal of engineering literature as well as giving me access to the UC library system. If I were to go into private industry, I would lose all of that, even if I was willing to pay a subscription fee (per-article pricing is a non-starter). I’d like Wikipedia to be in a position to make access to this material independent of my current employment.”
We’ve been honored to make a small step towards that goal. In many ways it’s been a great success.
A mirror for deeper problems
However, in other ways, the very need for The Wikipedia Library’s donation program only underscores the deep structural problems in our society’s knowledge infrastructure. Who benefits from our practice of accepting these generous donations?. Our editors are spared the frustration of being locked out of a critical source they need to write an article. Our readers can then consume the summarized, encyclopedic content on Wikipedia. But what if they want to check it for themselves, to follow the spirit of our core verifiability policy, and verify it? That’s what we teach people to do–to use Wikipedia as a starting point–which students and even some teachers seem to increasingly accept and practice. Some may luck out with a college library nearby, but the general public is left to rely on Wikipedia as the final word.
“Getting donated accounts is nice, but ultimately, the long term goal needs to be moving toward open publishing models,” said a recently surveyed Wikipedia Library donation recipient. “There is no excuse in this day and age to lock up academic knowledge behind paywalls. A chosen few with access to the resources is far from ideal. Without the widespread ability to verify the claim to a source, paywalled sourcing is almost the same as no citation at all.”
Another lamented, “I am a Wikipedian with 100+ million pageviews. On articles I write, I want my references to be verifiable by others, so it does not help me much whether I can find a source that others can’t check. I got a free subscription to Highbeam a while ago, but my Highbeam references are uncheckable by others, so I tend not to use it much.”
Promoting open access
We don’t want to topple the research and publishing ecosystem that creates the sources we depend on. We do want to nudge that system to improve its accessibility for the public. That’s why among The Wikipedia Library’s 5 goals is to “Promote broader open access in publishing and research.” In this context, our partnerships with research databases and journals are only an interim fix in a much longer process of reform, one which will allow us to create and share encyclopedic content that is truly accessible and verifiable.
This process has been going on for years before the library was formed. WikiProject Resource exchange is a place where editors can meet to request and deliver paywalled sources to each other, for the sole purpose of improving encyclopedia articles. WP:RX, as we like to call it, bustles with activity and the spirit of sharing. I view this as a ‘fair use’, a clearly non-commercial, limited, internal, public-interest exchange of academic content for educational purposes. This solution is piecemeal, but it doesn’t scale well, and it too doesn’t address the core problem.
In the library’s future, we’d like to help with identifying and locating open access resources. The number and variety of open access publications is rapidly expanding, yet it’s not always easy to find, filter, and search open journals or to locate free copies of open articles in repositories. At the least, we should help and empower our editors with this task.
We also want to begin a discussion about the usage of closed vs. open access sources on Wikipedia. For many years we have followed our community policy on the matter. Wikipedia:PAYWALL is clear that we are ‘access neutral’–we neither exclude nor prefer sources that are not available online (or those that are), those that charge to be viewed (or those that are free), nor those that prohibit reuse (or those that permit it). We do this because verifiability emphasizes the ‘-ability’ piece over the actual verifying. No one said verification had to be easy. This liberal approach ensures that print sources will not be overlooked or kept on the margins, and that we emphasize the Wikipedia article text itself above other concerns. Still, I wonder if we as a community want to consider adding one caveat to our approach: all else being equal, where an equally reliable, freely-available, open access source exists directly alongside a closed-access, paywalled source… do we not want to nudge our editors into taking ease of verification into account?
I recently heard about two UK students, David Carroll and Joseph McArthur, who built an Open Access Button. OA Button is a browser extension that alerts the world when a reader or researcher hits a paywall. It’s both a desperate plea for access, and a clarion call that the free flow of information will not be stopped. As the Wikipedia Library grows, we want to heed that call. We want to make sure our editors are not only flush with high quality sources, but also that they are living in a world agilely moving towards truly fuller and freer knowledge.
Jake Orlowitz, Wikipedian