In the past week, a controversy about #wikigate has brewed in open access circles. This is because the Wikipedia Library has partnered with Elsevier to provide access to Science Direct for high-producing Wikipedia editors.
These editors, presumably, would then cite Science Direct articles that are not open access in their wiki entries. Just how committed is Wikipedia -- itself a fully open access resource -- to the larger goal of open access?
Leading open access advocate Michael Eisen worries about the mixed signals here, and thinks that this is a clever gambit by Elsevier to get extra eyeballs on subscription articles (which, of course, can always be accessed in full via pay-per-view). Eisen likes and values Wikipedia but believes it made the wrong call.
Twitter has been on the case for the last six days, with Jake Orlowitz of the Wikipedia Library (among others) engaging in a spirited exchange with Eisen.
Of course, Wikipedia has long cited subscription based articles. During library workshops I endeavor to point this out to students, as a way to show that unequal access is baked into our scholarly discourse right down to the citations for a wiki entry. So perhaps increasing exposure to Elsevier content is just more of the same. If open access becomes the norm, awesome, but meanwhile we must live within the world as we find it. This is the pragmatic view that Orlowitz espouses.
On the other hand, Elsevier did tout their new partnership with Wikipedia in a nauseating propaganda piece. This is what really galls Eisen -- that noble-yet-naive Wikipedia has been hoodwinked by the villainous and canny publishing giant. As someone who has long since been sensitized to the noxiousness of Elsevier's PR, I know exactly where Eisen is coming from. To be fair, though, Orlowitz argues that the Wikipedia Library entered into this partnership with "eyes open."
Who is correct, Eisen or the Wikipedia Library? There are two relevant tests to make this determination:
- Will access to Science Direct help, have no effect upon, or harm the creation of wiki entries?
- Will greater exposure to Elsevier content within Wikipedia help, have no effect upon, or harm the cause of open access?
Re # 1, it seems clear that wiki entries will be improved. As yet science publishing has not become completely open access, although that inevitable day is drawing closer. Given this reality, the editors of the open access marvel that is Wikipedia will sometimes need to cite subscription articles as the best available source for a particular point.
Re # 2, the prospects are less clear. There could be a spike in pay-per-view income for Elsevier based on the readership of wiki entries, confirming Eisen's worst fears and serving as a setback for open access. It could be that hardly anyone clicks on the links in the citations anyway, so this makes no financial difference. Or it could be that the anachronistic reality of paywalls inspires more open access advocates, threatening Elsevier.
The answer to #1 is clear, the answer to # 2 is not. This is why I side with the Wikipedia Library, with eyes open myself.