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The cost of knowledge: open sourcing and the ‘academic spring’

Academic publishing in the UK has conventionally been channelled through by a small number of companies who maintain high fees for journal subscriptions. But as open source software continues to provide high quality free alternatives for autodidacts and beyond, the lifespan of this model is increasingly being called into question. The ‘Academic Spring’ is gathering momentum but what does this mean for the future of the peer-review system?

James Appleton
7 May 2012

Academic publishing in the UK has conventionally been channelled through by a small number of companies who maintain high fees for journal subscriptions. But as open source software continues to provide high quality free alternatives for autodidacts and beyond, the lifespan of this model is increasingly being called into question. The ‘Academic Spring’ is gathering momentum but what does this mean for the future of the peer-review system? 

When we imagine a community of amateur computer programmers, the stereotypes are normally unfair and not often pretty. Whatever you think of their ‘political’ motives, groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec have helped to reinforce the image of self-important sociopaths who see themselves as above the law. The truth is that they often are – our media and law enforcement bodies are woefully behind the curve when it comes to computer technology, and those in the know take full advantage of their rare skills. Yet among this much maligned group are people whose example could lead to a revolution in the way we think about the sharing of knowledge.

Don’t be fooled by my use of the word ‘revolution’: this will not be another article to add to the countless eulogies on the power of your Nokia 3210 to overthrow a despot. It is not, however, entirely unrelated – the Arab Spring, during which BlackBerry and Twitter were put to effective use in organising resistance in the streets of the Middle East and North Africa, lends its name to a recent movement against the monopolisation of scientific knowledge by a small number of for-profit companies.

It is appropriate then that this movement, nicknamed the Academic Spring, has its roots online. Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers was, he says, “taken aback” after his angry post about journal publisher Elsevier was seized upon by frustrated scientists and academics the world over. Before long, a website calling itself “The Cost of Knowledge” had appeared, and at the time of writing more than 10,000 people have signed up to its pledge not to work for the company that it accuses of charging “exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals” and manipulating institutions into buying bundles that they really do not need. They seek an open access model of research publication, whereby all taxpayer-funded research is made available for free on the web. This not only breaks the stranglehold that companies like Elsevier have over the spreading of knowledge, but also breaks the academic clique somewhat, allowing a member of the public – who would never dream of paying a sky-high subscription charge – to read about a subject of interest.

More power to them. This is long overdue, and as The Cost of Knowledge website itself states, it is an issue people have been shouting about for some time without real, decisive action ever having been taken. This is not an attack on the concept of intellectual property protection. To submit to or peer review for a journal, when not done for free, one largely has to pay for the privilege; it seems bizarre that researchers who submit to these journals for no direct financial benefit, with the intention of being read by their peers, with both parties desiring for the information to be shared, must go through a profit-seeking third party simply in order to have their work put in print.

What makes it even more bizarre is that there is no longer any need for it, and the world seems to be noticing. Over the past 25 years or so, as information has more and more effectively and quickly been brought to us through the internet, interactive TV, smartphones and the like, our thirst for knowledge has grown; in parallel, so has our willingness and desire to share our own expertise.

The archetypical case is always Wikipedia. Of course it has its flaws – any service that allows itself to be readily edited by the public at large is naturally open to vandals – but although its raison d’etre may not be to masquerade homophobic comments as fact in the biography of Nickelback, it has demonstrated the alarming acquiescence with which professionals will expound their area of expertise without feeling the need to claim any credit. I say alarming simply because of the panic that such free services have sparked in traditional, commercial providers of information. In the case of Wikipedia, it has seen off Microsoft’s Encarta comfortably, and has even forced the mighty Encyclopaedia Britannica to cease production of its print edition.

Where do those computer programmers come in? Well, all of this free transfer of information and research will be music to the ears of people like Richard Stallman. In 1983, he launched the GNU Project. This began with the aim of creating a free version of the Unix operating system, before widening its mission to creating a “sufficient body of free software” such that all non-free software is rendered obsolete. Since then there has been a worldwide movement by professionals in their free time and motivated amateurs to work on ‘open source’ software – software for which anybody is free to access and edit the code. Out of this movement grew such renowned programs as Linux, the web browser Mozilla Firefox, and OpenOffice, which can be used to view and edit Microsoft Office files.

If the Academic Spring is successful in revolutionising the sharing of academic work and catches up with the ideas that Stallman and others have been preaching for nearly thirty years, it could be the next step in this inexorable path towards a global open access model to knowledge. The step after that is a big one: getting large firms in on the act. So far The Cost of Knowledge talks only about taxpayer-funded research. With a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, it might be difficult to imagine multinational corporations willingly giving away their research for free.

There have been baby steps nonetheless. Following his appointment in 2009, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty spoke of his optimism that pharmaceutical companies would work together to create a voluntary patent pool; this would allow researchers from different companies, who often work on similar projects in parallel, to share their research. It may not sound commercially like a good idea, but when that which is at stake is the lives and health of every single person on the planet there has to be more to consider than financial implications. The GNU model might be a good place to start.

 

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