Among those of trying to imagine an alternative economic arrangement for scholarly publishing that will result in public access to research and scholarship, the journal subscription has become seemingly immovable impediment to the wider distribution of this form of intellectual property. This had led me to do a bit of historical digging into the commercial transaction of the subscription, as part of a larger project on learning’s role in the formation of intellectual property concept over many centuries.
I have come to discover that subscriptions were first used to raise money for scholarly publishing in the early 17th century. The members of the Accademia della Crusca (academy of bran), which had been founded in Florence in 1584, completed a scholarly manuscript in the first decade of seventeenth century in which they had assembled and organized close to 25,000 alphabetized Tuscan word forms, supported by citations from exemplary authors. They sought to publish this dictionary in hopes of both upholding and advancing the literary standing of their language.
However, the decidedly weak prospects of sales for such a book, which was to run to nearly a thousand pages when printed, meant that printers and booksellers were unwilling to take on the investment in paper and typesetting needed for such intricate scholarly works. Nor could the members entice any of the great patrons of the age, such as the de Medici family, to underwrite the initial investment needed to ensure that the book could be sold to readers at a reasonable price.
The Accademia della Crusca decided to ask its members to support the project by subscription. The subscription met its targets and In 1612, Vocabolario della lingua italiana was published, and went through a number of editions, with a digital version underway today. A subscription was used during the early modern period as a term that covered the raising of funds for armies, hospitals, schools, and other public goods (which were later supported through the collection of taxes and that were judged better supported by public than private means). The word subscribe originally referred in Latin to writing beneath, as with an inscription at the base of a statue, or at the end of a letter, or in the adding of one’s name at the bottom of a text or concept (as in subscribing to an idea). Subscribers were engaged in a financial expression of belief and value; it was a distributed form of patronage.
Now what should be made clear here is that patrons of scholarship, much as with the arts, the subscribers were not simply purchasing a copy of the work but were financing its production and publication for the benefit of others. The subscribers’ names were to be listed in the book’s front matter, much as patrons were celebrated on a dedication page. In this earlier period, the scholarly subscription was aimed at financing the learned book rather than the journal, which first appeared in 1665 in Paris and London. (The early journals did not need subscriptions to have them printed, as a ready market existed among booksellers for this sort of low-cost 16-page pamphlet.
During the twentieth century, the research libraries, often supported by public funds, developed into the great patrons of scholarly journals by entering into subscription arrangements that ensured steady access. Members of the public could enter the research library and access the journals; document delivery services, including interlibrary loan, helped others with access, all of which fell within the copyright rules of fair dealing and fair use. The subscription continued through the age of print to make scholarly work more widely available, if still in what might strike us today as in a relatively limited fashion.
The digital era introduces a new standard of public access to this particular body of work. This involves setting scholarly subscriptions apart from the private subscriptions intended to finance the New York Times. While vital to the future of this newspaper, given how advertising support is moving from newspapers to Facebook and Google (itself an interesting development in the commercial discourse of democratic life), the scholarly library subscription had not been about purchasing exclusive access to a private good. Rather, it was a form of civil patronage intended to support the wider circulation of the scholarly work that become very much a public enterprise by the latter half of the twentieth century.
So what is needed for the digital era is a rethinking of the scholarly subscription. It is time to restore the earlier sense of the subscription as underwriting the cost of transforming this particular form of intellectual property into a public good. The economics are relatively simple. The subscription fees paid by research libraries, which account for almost all of the money spent on publishing scholarly journals, permit no public electronic access to the published work.
What is needed is a similarly priced subscription, which permits public access. This would restore the research libraries place as public agents of learned patronage. Readers do their part, with their computers and broadband services covering what were once printing-paper- and-delivery costs. Think of the libraries insisting on what might be called open access subscriptions. How exactly such a digital-era transformation can be best modelled, piloted, and rolled out — which is to say, how the spirit of this earlier patronage of learning for greater public benefit, can be preserved into the digital era — is the work that I and others have underway with such initiatives as the Open Access Publishing Cooperative, Open Library of the Humanities, and SCOAP3 for journals; Knowledge Unlatched and Lever Press for books; and the Public Knowledge Project for open source publishing software.