Jan 232010
Image representing New York Times as depicted ...
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With the New York Times announcing that it will start charging for its website, an examination of why scientific and journalistic publishing seem to be headed in opposite directions.

The New York Times dropped a bombshell this week: Beginning in 2011, the Gray Lady will begin charging non-subscribers for access to articles on its website.

That the world’s most famous newspaper would try to monetize its website (again) wasn’t a total shock, and the question of paywall efficacy has been recently hashed out over at the Time’s competitor, The Wall Street Journal. Still, it was a wake-up call to the blogosphere: Sometime in the near future, an important organism in the online informational ecosystem will radically change its behavior. Readers relying on it for intellectual sustenance will have to expend more resources hunting it down, or look elsewhere.

The skeptics were the first into the fray. Slate’s Jack Shafer was quick to point out the many ways the Times’ paywall could fail, mostly through the machinations of the technologically inclined. And Felix Salmon felt that his own Reuters would stand to reap the benefit of the Times’ blunder, as online writers would rather link to the former rather than risk running readers into a wall with the latter. As he says,  “Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to build ‘active communities’ behind a paywall.”

Questions about how the paywall would actually affect the link economy aside, this statement must be missing a word or hiding a whole lot behind that “almost,” as pretty much every communal activity requires a buy-in of some sort. Whether you’re paying dues to a bowling league or a church, shelling out cash for a World of Warcraft membership or a box set of The Wire so you can talk about it with your coworkers, the content has a price tag attached. We all pay to play at one point or another.

And sometimes we pay to work. Scientific publishing certainly operates this way. There are test cases for the journalistic world —The New Scientist has recently erected a prototype of how the New York Times’ paywall might operate—but the real model is in academia, where paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for journal subscriptions is just the price of doing business.

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