Academic PDFs are rapidly approaching the situation the MP3s hit with the rise of Napster. Our Napster of PDFs is much more diffuse than Napster’s well-defined network: we visit websites with PDFs of whole books (not scanned — leaked from publisher’s computers, as far as I can tell), we drop emails to friends at other universities for PDFs of articles they might have access to, we Tweet out requests or make them in Facebook updates or post them in private listservs. We subscribe to Scribd, which appears to exist only to pirate scans of work by pretty much anyone except the person who posts them. You know what I’m talking about.
As was the cast in the late 90s, I don’t have much sympathy for content distributors who don’t create content, but merely ‘add value’ to it by pricing it so high that sharing it with colleagues makes one feel like Robin Hood. I do, however, have a great deal of sympathy for the content creators: the people who actually write articles and songs (and help produce them, whether they be editors or studio engineers) find their livelihood and reputation shifting like crazy as the Internet enables duplication and sharing of their creative work.
One of the downsides of music sharing at the turn of the millennium was the vacuous consumerism that grew alongside demands for open code and open access: the idea amongst listeners that you should never have to pay for music, that pirating it was not morally wrong, and that albums just sort of appeared out of nowhere on someone’s limewire shared folder, the work that went into producing them totally obscured.
I worry that something like this is happening to students today, for whom PDFs emerge magically out of the ethersphere. It seems to me that undergraduates and graduate students today take their texts in whatever form they get them — it seems alien to many of them that paying for a paper copy of a book is something one does to support and author and a press that one believes in.
I think this partly has to do with the ease of sharing PDFs, but I also think it has to do with how we train our students. At the heart of Open Access issues is a central moral notion about the importance of sharing to scholarship, and yet the world we are creating may be one which lacks the scholarly values that we take so seriously. My diagnosis of the present could be wrong, but I think it is something to watch out for.