Privacy, Secrecy, Free Access … Misinterpretation?

The pity of it all is that many of the issues that we face with privacy rights, national security and freedom of information are a result of misinterpreting underlying concepts. Unfortunately, our “brilliant engineers,” as politicians like to call them, are the ones who appear to be the most confused of all when it comes to differentiating among various types of data protection.

What has changed in recent years to have brought these issues to a head?

Let’s start with free access to research as discussed in an article by Kate Murphy in The New York Times of March 13, 2016 with the title “Should All Research Be Free?” First we must distinguish between free or open access and no-charge access. The former relates to whether certain types of documents, such as research papers, should be made available by researchers or their institutions to the rest of the world. The latter relates to whether institutions and publishers should charge access fees to be able to read the papers and articles emanating from the research.

Whether or not there is a charge to access a paper varies with the organization holding the copyright. In my personal experience, for example, IEEE Xplore, which contains almost 4 million articles, makes abstracts viewable online but charges for full papers, the rates being less for members. Authors may distribute their papers on a very limited bass if they include the appropriate IEEE copyright notice on the paper, but cannot post the paper online, even with the copyright.

The ISACA Journal, on the other hand, makes articles available only to members during the first year, but then puts them in the public domain, at no charge, after the year is up.

And then there is STSC CrossTalk: The Journal of Defense Software Engineering, which publishes their journals day one for anyone to access.

Each of these examples is based on a different business model, mostly depending upon whether publications are subsidized or available through subscription. Sadly, there have been cases where the misinterpretation of the idea that “information should be free” has led to some stealing of information that is owned and charged for. But stealing copyrighted material is a crime. And those who are caught ought to be punished accordingly.

At the journal article level, it is perhaps less of a big deal (thought still significant) than with books. In the 37 years over which I have published five books I have seen royalties tumble, particularly over the past decade as second-hand books became readily available on Amazon and other such sites, and free pirated e-versions of the books became available for download to everyone over the Internet. For most authors, particularly of academic-oriented books, it is hardly worth the effort financially. Unless authors can benefit from other means of monetizing the book, such as consulting or enhancing one’s career, there is little incentive to publish, which is a loss to us all. It is really annoying for an author (e.g., me) to see a pirate website claiming that more than 2000 copies of one’s book have been downloaded with hundreds of ecstatic reviews, though any or all of the claims as to downloads and reviews may be fake.

It costs money and effort to produce and distribute content. Authors and publishers are entitled to be compensated for that either directly or indirectly. Whether confidential and secret information should be made available to friends and enemies alike is yet another matter of concern, as is the discussion as to whether or not results should be released more quickly to the research community, whether paid for or not.

These are difficult and complex issues related to political and economic factors. But, as a start, we should make sure that we understand the difference between free-of-charge and free unlimited availability … which we don’t for the most part.

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