Lorcan 3 min read

A few years ago, my colleague Brian Lavoie wrote an influential white paper on the economics of digital preservation: The Incentives to Preserve Digital Materials: Roles, Scenarios, and Economic Decision-Making [pdf]. The paper developed a framework within which to think about the economics of digital based on the incentives, or lack of incentives, to preserve of defined groups of stakeholders.
Brian, an economist by training, is used to thinking about issues in terms of incentives. After reading that paper, and no doubt influenced by the close proximity of Brian, I find that I see issues of incentives as an important part of many interesting discussions about changing behaviors in a network environment.
So, for example, Tim Spalding wrote an interesting piece some time ago comparing tagging behaviors on LibraryThing and Amazon. It is worth reading in full, but here I just want to draw attention to a central message: the incentives for people to tag on LibraryThing are much stronger than the incentives on Amazon. They are tagging their own materials; they are creating social value through connections with other collections; and so on. The incentives to contribute tags to Amazon are much weaker.

Something is going on here-something with broad implications for tagging, classification and “Web 2.0” commerce. There are a couple of lessons, but the most important is this: Tagging works well when people tag “their” stuff, but it fails when they’re asked to do it to “someone else’s” stuff. You can’t get your customers to organize your products, unless you give them a very good incentive. We all make our beds, but nobody volunteers to fluff pillows at the local Sheraton. [Thingology (LibraryThing’s ideas blog): When tags work and when they don’t: Amazon and LibraryThing]

Incentives are also central to discussions about open access. Here are a couple of examples.
My former colleague Andy Powell has been writing and talking about institutional repositories recently, arguing that a network level repository model might be more effective. Here is a compact version of that position, which has been advanced in various places and caused some animated discussion on some lists:

Secondly, that our focus on the ‘institution’ as the home of repository services is not aligned with the social networks used by scholars, meaning that we will find it very difficult to build tools that are compelling to those people we want to use them. As a result, we resort to mandates and other forms of coercion in recognition that we have not, so far, built services that people actually want to use. We have promoted the needs of institutions over the needs of individuals. Instead, we need to focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks based on global repository services. Somewhat oddly, ArXiv (a social repository that predates the Web let alone Web 2.0) provides us with a good model, especially when combined with features from more recent Web 2.0 services such as Slideshare. [eFoundations: Open Access]

So, in terms of incentives (see Andy’s use of the word “compelling” above) I take Andy to be arguing something like this: an institutional repository
This leads nicely into my final example, which returns us to an economist, this time the indefatigable Thomas Krichel, now a professor at the Palmer School of Library & Information Science. Thomas is behind RePEc and related services. He and Christian Zimmerman wrote a paper a while ago called The economics of open bibliographic data provision

We looked at open academic libraries, i.e. libraries that provide freely information about academic works. We showed that it is possible to create such libraries by following a model similar to that of open software where scattered volunteers help on a common project. We argued that there are strong incentives for the participant to make sure the library is accurate, especially the part that they are in charge of. While the benefit of open software is more diffuse, i.e. a contributor’s reputation will not depend on how his scripting contribution will improve the software overall as it is difficult to identify everyone’s contribution, in the case of open libraries the incentives are much clearer once some critical mass has been reached. Indeed, authors, the institutions they are affiliated with and the outlets where they publish all strive to have accurate and up-to-date information about their publications in the open library. [The economics of open bibliographic data provision – PDF]


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