When I buy eggs in the supermarket I always open the box to check the eggs are not cracked before I put them in my basket. When I buy a pair of shoes, I try them on first to see if they fit and look OK. Similarly when buying some items of clothing. It is generally accepted that before buying goods you can check the suitability of the goods.
Information is not like other goods though. If you open the box to read the information, then you have consumed the information already. This is a conundrum that makes buying and selling information resources a tricky business. Thinking about journal articles, how do you decide that you want to read an article? Perhaps it is because it has been cited, perhaps the article title tells you that it is interesting, perhaps the authors and the journal source help to confirm it. For many years that was all you had to go on, but over the last 40 years abstracts have become ever more readily available and they can sometimes give a stronger (but not infallible) clue as to whether or not an article is worth reading.
When online journals came along I thought that we would start to see publishers selling sections of articles – 20% of the full article price would get you the intro, 20% would give you the methods, 30% for the results and 30% for the discussion. You could sample a small part of the article for a charge less than the cost of the whole, in order to satisfy yourself that you really wanted all of it. But I was wrong. Publishers even now only sell complete articles, and actually they prefer to sell the complete journal or even large bundles of journals.
If you are in an institutional setting (e.g. University) you will probably have access to a wide range of subscribed journals and packages so this isn’t such a problem. If you are an independent practitioner, work in a small science-based company, or you just have an occasional need to access the scientific literature, then it is a problem. You have to buy a whole article (and these can cost as much as £30 online) on the basis of an interesting abstract.
A Californian company called DeepDyve are setting out to change this by offering article rentals for just 99 cents. Their press release sets out the rationale, suggesting that there are up to 50 million people in the USA who use the web for research and who might value the convenience and affordability of obtaining an article for 99 cents. In a subsequent blog post the company elaborates on this, saying that their audience is the non-institutional “knowledge worker” and suggesting that there could be 35-40 million of them in the USA, making a market of $2 – 4 billion.
The 99 cent price tag is a key feature, explicitly modelled on the iTunes pricing. DeepDyve believe that it is “a price which makes it morally convenient for users to purchase, not pirate“. Open Access articles can be viewed for free through the service. They also claim a database of 30 million articles, easily searchable. The one big snag is in the rental concept. You don’t get to save a pdf on to your computer, but you can only view an article through the DeepDyve software. Articles cannot be printed or shared.
DeepDyve’s announcement has set the library and publisher listservs and blogs alight. Phil Davis on the Scholarly Kitchen blog notes that some of the big publishers (Elsevier and Springer) are as yet not included in the DeepDyve service. But it is undoubtedly a most interesting entry to the market, and he suggests that “what the Big Deal did to the library’s relationship with publishers, DeepDyve may [do] to the reader’s relationship with libraries and publishers“.
David Crotty from CSHL Publishing, on Phil Davis’ comment thread, is sceptical and asks “can anyone explain why it would be in a publisher’s interest to split revenue with a third party?” Publishing guru Sally Morris, on the liblicense-l list says “I for one find this a very positive development, I just wonder why Google hasn’t done it first!”
Jill Emery, a librarian at UTexas, Austin, did some testing and found a few practical snags:
Many records marked free are just an abstract from PubMed
Many records are Preview Only meaning you can only buy them from the publisher.
Renting an article for $.99 gives 24-hour access in a flash player. You can never see more than ½ page at a time. In a fit of stubbornness I wanted to see if there was any way I could end up with the whole article saved. To do it I had to do screen shots of the article, 2 screen shots per page and the article I rented was a 31 page review . Needless to say I didn’t bother to do the whole article, but you could…
Searching is very clunky, does mysterious things with what seems to be a web search.
I think it is interesting, though perhaps too early to say if it will succeed. I think it is addressing a genuine need that has been largely overlooked until now. Whether the convenience of a cheap preview will outweigh the inconvenience of the clunky mechanism remains to be seen.