Locking down scholarly formats

If the dynamics of scholarly PDFs are similar to the dynamics of online music sales, then one thing we should expect in the future is for publishers to add DRM to PDFs to create scarcity and force sales.

We have DRMy aspects of PDFs right now, kinda. Some online sites add watermarks to PDFs listing where you downloaded it, when, and using whose authorization. This doesn’t actually control how you use the PDF, of course, but it does help them track it as it circulates — and it also may attempt to influence your behavior by letting you know They’re Watching.

The ironic thing is that as scholarship gets more and more digital there are lots of things that publishers can do to add value to PDFs. Making them small, for instance — we all loath twenty page articles that take forever to print because they are twenty megs big. As people do more and more annotation and exportation of selections of PDFs, the qualities of the underlying text — how well it’s “OCR’d” — really starts to matter. Good metadata stuck inside of PDFs means that when we import them into our favorite bibliography programs we don’t have to do tons of manual entry.

These are areas where publishers could really do something to create a quality product that authors and editors can not. Perhaps I am wrong to be cynical, but I think they might take the easier route and make PDFs less useful, rather than more useful. If I understand it correctly, for instance, it is not that hard to create PDFs that don’t allow annotation, or don’t allow changes (such as annotations) to be saved. Of course, I understand that it is pretty easy to defeat this sort of encryption, but how much time do we want to spend jailbreaking PDFs? And when publishers do begin locking down scholarly formats what functionality will they accidentally break in their attempts to secure their formats?

On the Ebook front, the situation is different — I think the fact that many of us (I’m certainly a frequent offender on this one) are buying ebooks from Amazon in great numbers indicates that they have already gotten de facto acceptance from the scholarly community about a format that makes exporting annotations impossible. I’m in a situation where I’ll read a book on my kindle, and then ILL it, photocopy the chapter I want to teach, digitize it, and post it on my class website. How much sense does this make? According to Amazon, a lot.

We’ll see how it all plays out. If you had told us ten years ago that DRM free music downloads would be ubiquitous, profitable, and legal no-one would have believed it. I think we forget what a success story that was. Will we have the same sort of success in the future with scholarly format? I think a lot remains to be seen.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

9 thoughts on “Locking down scholarly formats

  1. I’d like to here what Chris Kelty has to say about this, given his experience with Two Bits.

    A meme that I’ve seen popping up in several places recently suggests that, for most authors/musicians/content creators, visibility is a more pressing problem than being ripped off. This is certainly true, I suggest, in the realm of scholarly publishing. For most scholars, the reputation created by being read by more people is worth far more than the peanuts to be earned from royalties.

    The exceptions are those who write widely used textbooks; but that means sales in the hundreds of thousands of copies not the 700 or so that is the average for scholarly monographs in the social sciences and humanities. It seems to me that these are so rare that to make them the type case for the rest of us is a mystification that conceals the real issues at stake.

  2. Perhaps I am wrong to be cynical, but I think [publishers] might take the easier route and make PDFs less useful, rather than more useful.

    Is it telling that the only publishers that I know of who are producing PDFs that take advantage of the format in order to do things that are only possible digitally—the USGS via its US Topo program—distribute the final product free of charge?

  3. PDFs are a dang stupid way of distributing scholarly publications. PDF is a proprietary format, the files are huge compared to text files, and because the text isn’t reflowable, it’s hard to read PDFs on many of the smaller-screened reading devices.

    An open, XML-based format is the obvious solution. We’ll get there eventually, but it will probably take some time, and some co-evolution with ereading devices.

  4. Reading Zora’s and Kerim’s comments, I am instantly reminded of the VHS/Betacam wars of the early 1980s, and the way in which Microsoft Windows blew away the operating system competition, except for Apple and Linux holdouts. Superior technology is no guarantee of adoption unless advocates of the new technology can find ways to overcome the installed base problem. There are so many PDFs out there and so many great ways to read and annotate them that, at least for this MacOS and iOS user, the motivation to switch is minute. Huge files? No problem, when my iPhone 4.0, the cheaper version, comes with 16GB of memory, my iPad with 32GB, and Terabyte hard disk prices are dropping all the time. Processing time for the cool new features? CPUs keep getting faster, too. Give me elegant hardware and an easy to use interface, and I care as much about file formats as CEOs do about the plumbing that connects the executive toilet to the sewage system. Zip.

  5. @Zora: There are formats that offer more flexibility than .pdf but I think people who grew up reading physical publications prefer PDFs because of the resemblance they bear to books and paper.

    Isn’t PDF 1.7 open standard?

  6. this whole discussion gives me the willies. In part this is because it’s really clear no one is in charge. Who could possible set a standard or enforce it in this space? And unlike the scene with MP3 in the late 1990s, PDF is not the only way to do things. All these other formats have advantages and adherents and I suspect we are in for more of the same from every format that comes down the pike. shudder. (Oh and MTBradley, 1.7 is indeed “open” in the sense that it is an ISO official standard but that won’t stop Adobe from adding “features” to the standard, or anyone else).

    @John: My experience with Two Bits is all seat of the pants. Duke gave me the final PDF to distribute, but I don’t actually know whether it has good metadata in it, probably not. The interesting thing is that even two years ago, there was no clear and obvious way to do this that would ensure there might be a single reference copy of a text… so I just threw it all up there, and have added other formats as people have created them (SISU, ePUB, etc). If I had time, I might worry about it now, but alas… other books beckon…

  7. @Zora wrote, “PDFs are a dang stupid way of distributing scholarly publications”

    And yet, PDF is the easiest digital format to offer when publications are created for print in InDesign. It’s very simply to export a PDF for electronic distribution after the PDF is generated for the printer. Until desktop publishing tools make it easier to generate different formats, publishers are not going to choose to do the extra layer of final production (e.g., the additional copy editing to reformat) that would be added for producing alternate versions.

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