No access is no answer to closed access
A piece this week in Ars Technica by Glyn Moody, its contributing policy editor, questioned Wikipedia's commitment to open access. At issue is a program from The Wikipedia Library (TWL) to provide access to ScienceDirect, an academic database operated by Elsevier that contains some 2,500 journals and 26,000 e-books. Publishers Weekly notes that it is "the world’s largest database of scientific and medical research." Elsevier is providing 45 accounts that offer partial access to the database, which will be given, free of charge, to "top Wikipedia editors". Ars Technica goes as far as dubbing this with the ridiculous moniker of "WikiGate".
What Moody does not mention is that these 45 accounts are part of a much larger program that dates back to 2010, even before TWL was formed; Elsevier is merely the latest database operator to participate. The program provides Wikipedia editors with access to a number of databases like JSTOR and Project MUSE for use in researching, writing, citing, and verifying Wikipedia articles. The bit about "top Wikipedia editors" is puffery from the press release, as most databases are available to any editor who meets a bare minimum of qualifications, which is basically little more than a way of weeding out sockpuppets and trolls. If you are currently editing, are not currently blocked, and your account isn't brand new, you'll probably be able to get access yourself. (Editor's note: Gamaliel plays a very small role at the TWL, coordinating access to one of the many available databases, but he was not contacted by them for this editorial, which is entirely his own opinion.)
The only difference between this and previous TWL account donations is what almost certainly got the attention of open-access advocates in the first place, the fact that the publisher in question is Elsevier. This Dutch conglomerate is one of the world's largest academic publishers
and controls access to some two thousand academic journals, including the prestigious The Lancet
. Moody's article notes a tweet
from open-access advocate Professor Michael Eisen
, whose blog
and twitter feed
are full of complaints about the publisher. In one post
, Eisen calls Elsevier "the Dutch publishing conglomerate that has long served as the poster child for all that is wrong with the industry".
From my day job as an academic librarian, I can attest that the complaints about Elsevier by Eisen and other open-access advocates are accurate and well-deserved. There's even a Wikipedia article about the problems in my field created by publishers like Elsevier—the serials crisis, caused by escalating prices of academic journals in a time of declining library budgets and increasing demands for expensive electronic access. This crisis is all the more maddening because the massive profits accumulated by Elsevier and its ilk come from extracting money from libraries and universities based on a product that is written for Elsevier largely for free. Scientific and academic research is generated by academics, most of which is paid for by taxpayers in the form of government grants and salaries for academics working for public institutions, and submitted to academic publishers, who pay nothing in exchange above minor administrative costs. Academic journals are not staffed by employees of publishers like Elsevier, but by other academics who as part of their career portfolio edit the journals and peer review the articles as volunteers.
In a perverse cycle, the publishers then charge libraries for these publications—sometimes twice if they pay separately for a subscription and for access as part of a database. Libraries are charged an "institutional rate" that is far higher than that charged to an individual subscriber; most are academic libraries that are part of the same class of institutions that generate most of this research in the first place. For their role, which is barely more than rent-seeking
, the big corporate publishers are raking in enormous profits. Last year, Elsevier reported
a profit margin of a whopping 37%. In 2012, Elsevier's director of global academic relations explained
the massive profits as "simply a consequence of the firm's efficient operation", a statement that still induces rage three years later in those who understand what's been going on in the academic publishing industry.
Eisen is absolutely justified to write "my concern is not about citing Elsevier articles—it's about helping Elsevier pretend it's interested in the public" or when Professor Peter Murray-Rust told Ars Technica that the accounts were "crumbs from the rich man's table ... It's patronising, ineffectual". This is simply a way for Elsevier to get a bit of good publicity at essentially no cost to them. Where we differ is in what to do next. Open-access advocates would have Wikipedia not provide Elsevier with this opportunity for publicity because of our commitment to free knowledge; but I believe Wikipedia should not heed this suggestion, because while we are committed to open access, our primary obligation is to the readers, even above taking a stand for the open-access movement by rejecting this "gift".
The open-access movement has made great strides in the area of academic journals. Academics are abandoning journals by for-profit publishers like Elsevier in favor of open-access journals and repositories like arXiv. Some of the influential government research-funding agencies are moving in the right direction, although with glacial slowness, by leaning on grantees to avoid locking up behind a corporate paywall outcomes that have been funded by the public purse. On multiple occasions, the editorial boards of Elsevier journals have resigned en masse and set up competing open-access journals.
Access to academic journals has become a significant part of the open-access movement, such as the case of activist Aaron Swartz, who in a sinister course of events was charged with violations of the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for downloading journal articles from JSTOR. Despite these insults to the public purse, it is difficult to see how denying 45 active Wikipedia contributors access to the articles in ScienceDirect will serve the cause of open access.
The primary obligation of libraries—whether traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions or library-like online institutions providing information services such as the Wikipedia Library—is satisfying the information needs of the populations they serve. I doubt that Professors Eisen or Murray-Rust would ask libraries at the University of California, Berkeley or the University of Cambridge not to provide access to Elsevier journals like Lancet and Cell in the name of the open-access movement. While libraries such as these can and should support open access, their primary obligation is to the academic and research needs of their students and faculty, not to the needs of the open access movement.
A similar obligation exists for the Wikipedia Library: to help editors write the best articles they can using the best sources they can. As Jake Orlowitz and Alex Stinson wrote for the WMF blog:
||... the Wikipedia Library has to serve our readers and editors as best we can, and that means giving them as much access as possible to the best research today. Collaboration with publishers is a compromise: editors summarize paywalled content for our readers, sharing information on Wikipedia that may otherwise never be represented.
Wikipedia is already doing its part for open access. A recent study discussed in the Signpost's August Recent Research showed that open-access articles are 47% more likely to be cited by Wikipedia. But the fact remains that not every article can be written solely with open-access materials and not every source cited in an article will be available to every reader or editor. Take the article Nyaung-u Sawrahan, which I created as a stub in 2005 with a book from my then-university library. It now lists six books as references, two of which are in Burmese, and none of which appear to be available digitally. Most readers will not have access to these books, let alone the ability to read Burmese.
Eisen warns about a "privileged class" of editors who have access to sources while most readers and editors do not—but that already exists. Different editors read different languages and have access to different materials. Some attend universities with robust print and digital library holdings, while others live in areas with limited library and interlibrary loan access. Programs like TWL don't create those disparities. They help alleviate them by providing some editors with needed sources.
The English Wikipedia is approaching its five-millionth article. That's five million articles in one language alone that we've created and freely donated to the world. While not every source in every one of those five million is freely available at the click of a mouse, if we didn't scrutinize and reference those sources we might not have an article at all on Nyaung-u Sawrahan or any number of other topics. And those articles comprise Wikipedia's biggest commitment to the open-access movement: our readers.
No particular trends to spot in this week's top article traffic. Pablo Escobar maintains the top spot for a second week due to the new Netflix series on his life, followed by the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The Queen of England is #6 by virtue of now being the longest-reigning British monarch in history. This was dutifully noted by the press in the same way that same event was noted in September 1896 when Queen Victoria took that title. Thus does time march on.
For a list of the most edited articles of the week, see here.
For the week of September 6 to 12, 2015, the ten most popular articles on Wikipedia, as determined from the report of the most viewed pages (and culled from the Top 25 Report), were:
||Holding steady in the top spot for a second week (down by about 130,000 views). The Capone of cocaine shot from the bottom to the top of this list last week, thanks to the Netflix series Narcos, which charts his rise, brutal rule, and bloody end. It is odd that the Colombian drug lords haven't been romanticised as their Italian Chicago predecessors were. Perhaps it's simple xenophobia, or more likely, because we are so much more aware of how barbaric they were.
||September 11 attacks
||The 14th anniversary of these terrorist attacks repeats its second place showing from last year, when it was eclipsed by a Google Doodle on Leo Tolstoy. It topped the chart in 2013.
||Serena's no stranger to this list, and she returned this week as she played in the 2015 US Open, ultimately losing to Roberta Vinci (#19) in the semifinals.
||Down one spot and about 120,000 views from last week, for a fifth straight week in the Top 10 is the article about the founding member of N.W.A, whose death from AIDS at the age of just 31 forms the emotional climax of the film Straight Outta Compton.
||The Visit (2015 film)
||The latest film from director M. Night Shyamalan is this comedy horror movie, released in North America on September 11. It finished second at the box office, just edged out by The Perfect Guy (which is somewhat oddly all the way down at #205 in the raw WP:5000). The film has received mixed reviews from critics, though some have praised it as a return to form for Shyamalan.
||The Queen returns to the top 25 for the first time since May, when she welcomed a new grandchild. On September 9, she surpassed her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria to become the longest-reigning British monarch in history, at 63 years, 217 days, and counting. Victoria took her title on September 23, 1896, which the press similarly noted back then.
||Deaths in 2015
||The viewing figures for this article have been remarkably constant; fluctuating week to week between 450 and 550 thousand on average, apparently heedless of who actually died. Views were slightly higher this week at 575K. Deaths noted on the list this week include Russian water polo player Vladislav Timakov (age 24, September 6, heart attack); Spanish woman's right activist Elena Arnedo (age 74, September 7); Azerbaijani musician Habil Aliyev (age 88, September 8); American businessman Charles Hallac (age 50, September 9, cancer); Italian actor Franco Interlenghi (age 83, September 10); Georgian writer Rezo Cheishvili (age 82, September 11); and The Damned bassist Bryn Merrick (age 56, September 12, cancer)
||Syrian Civil War
||The ongoing refugee crisis, now more directly impacting Europe than before, is getting increased attention.
||An annual appearance, the first Monday in September is the traditional end of the United States summer season, and, for some people, the last time of the year it is in any way excusable to wear white.
||Down from #4 last week. The TV series about the rise of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (see #1) premiered in its entirety on Netflix on August 28.
Just missing the Top 25 this week: EuroBasket 2015 (#26), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (#27), Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (#28, dropping from #11 last week), Until Dawn (#29, dropping from #5), and Stephen Colbert (#30, new host of the American Late Show).
Byrd and notifications leave, but page views stay; was a terror suspect editing Wikipedia?
Garfield Byrd's departure
On 10 September, Garfield Byrd announced in an email that he would be stepping down on 30 September. He had served as chief of finance and administration of the Wikimedia Foundation since 2011. He is taking a position at an unnamed foundation focused on public education.
Many people wished him well and thanked him for his time. A few mentioned his presence at Wikimanias, , and several mentioned his dancing.
Did terrorism suspect edit Wikipedia?
On September 9, the FBI arrested Joshua Ryne Goldberg, a 20-year-old Jewish resident of Orange Park, Florida, for allegedly supplying bomb-making information for a plot to attack a Kansas City ceremony commemorating September 11 attacks. A series of reports in the Sydney Morning Herald detailed Goldberg's alleged history of "trolling" using a variety of online personas, including a GamerGater, an ISIS supporter, a white supremacist, a radical free-speech crusader, and a feminist. Given Goldberg's many accounts on various websites, including Twitter and Reddit, it seems possible that he attempted to use Wikipedia accounts as part of his web of online activity. A persona named in media reports and the criminal complaint against Goldberg shares its name with a Wikipedia account that was blocked for sockpuppetry and editwarring by a checkuser in 2013. That persona's Twitter account claimed to have created a particular Wikipedia article in 2015. The account that created that article was blocked for personal attacks and harassment earlier this month. The Arbitration Committee seems to have learned of this matter, as an arbitrator indefinitely blocked the second account following Goldberg's arrest. Neither account appears to have edited articles involving terrorism, but instead focused on film, especially horror films, animation, and video games. G
Is Google taking eyeballs away from Wikipedia?
Oliver Keyes of the Wikimedia Foundation has investigated claims that Wikipedia and other Wikimedia sites have been losing "an insane amount of traffic" over recent months, due to Google possibly diverting searches toward its own or other sources of information.
A special study of a sample of pageviews was carried out. The results indicate that search traffic referred directly from Google has in fact increased between January and August this year. However, search traffic with no known referer has dropped. This change may or may not be related to what Google is doing, and the report concludes with a call for direct discussions with Google, as well as for more complete ongoing tracking of how searchers reach Wikimedia sites.N
Notifications (Echo) reversal
On 15 September, the WMF decided to roll back the recent changes to Notifications (Echo). This is due to two bugs introduced in the recent change.
The first bug was a large increase in the size of the CSS being loaded, causing a slowdown. The initial slowdown was reported to be five-fold. They tried to work on it, but even after their efforts there was still a 30% increase in the size of the CSS, and up to a second longer in load-time on uncached views.
The second bug was a rendering error in Firefox 3.5 and Safari. In Firefox text was spread throughout a large portion of the page (see image), while in Safari the text was constrained to the top portion of the page. J
- Milestones: No milestones this week, but the English Wikipedia is rapidly approaching five million articles.
- SSL Certificate Expirations: The SSL certificates for wmfusercontent.org and wmflabs.org (tools.wmflabs.org) expired without being renewed. They will be added to the tracking calendar for the future. J
- The Wikipedia Library launches seven new partnerships: EBSCO (expansive academic and popular databases), IMF eLibrary (international trade and economics publications), Newspaperarchive.com (international historical newspapers), Sabinet (African journals), Numérique Premium (French language books), Al Manhal (Arabic and English multidisciplinary publications), and Jamalon (English and Arabic books). Also expansions of ScienceDirect (science, medicine and social science journals), BMJ and DynaMed Plus (medical content), as well as additional accounts from many other available resources. S