Monetising knowledge in New Academia


I’ve always wanted to be an academic pirate. When I say I’d always wanted to be a research  pirate, I hadn’t actually realised that that was what I’d always wanted until I read a similar phrase in an article on the website I Fucking Love Science, entitled: “Research Pirate illegally makes millions of scientific papers available for free”.

Can anyone actually own knowledge? That’s the question at the heart of a legal battle between some of the world’s largest academic publishers and a Russian neuroscientist named Alexandra Elbakyan, who operates a website allowing users to access millions of research papers for free. According to Elbakyan, the publishers owning these papers are restricting the spread of knowledge by charging people to read them, although a lawsuit filed by Elsevier may result in her being ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages. [IFLScience]

What an amazing thing to be! I’d always assumed I wanted to buy expensive stationery and write flowery literature that would never actually be read by anyone, but would nonetheless make me obscene amounts of money. Here, now, was an alternative in which I could thoroughly utilise the many Breton striped tops I own.

The matter of journal articles protected by paywalls is one under increasing scrutiny in the light of large-scale digitisation strategies, and the fact that academic writing is no longer necessarily published routinely in hard-copy form. I genuinely do understand why people believe paywalls are necessary in relation to academic writing: as Elsevier claims, the income received by charging for access to journal articles funds future research projects – an increasingly vital factor in the light of severe budgetary restrictions in HE. And presumably the articles that are requested the most and have the most amount of money spent on acquring them, are deemed the most important – which in itself, lends itself to the issue of measurability so important in light of changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – measurability of reach, and impact.

And of course it could be argued that the paywalled journal article is a way of ensuring the validity of a piece of research: only the best and brightest are published and made available.

I understand the reasons for paywalls, but I don’t agree with them. To my mind, they are a means of excluding people from knowledge acquisition. Who, outside of an academic institution, can afford such cost? Indeed, prices have risen so significantly over the last few years that even those aforementioned academic institutions are downscaling the amount of journals they subscribe to, as having too many is simply too costly. The expense of obtaining access to a journal article is often more perplexing because the authors and peer reviewers of such work aren’t paid anything for their roles.

The Research Pirate Alexandra Elbakyan could potentially be charged $150,000 per paper for each article she uploads to the Sci-Hub website  (dubbed “The Research Pirates of the Dark Web” by The Atlantic – my God! How thoroughly exciting!), a site which is now (according to The Atlantic) only accessible through Tor. Such a ruling seems fairly ridiculous, hard to enforce and, frankly, somewhat anachronistic. The key, says Elbakyan, is conformity. Writing for a specific journal means an academic has to adhere to the standards of that publication, or the defined standards of the peer reviewers, and in such a way creativity is stifled.

“The system is broken…It devalues us, authors, editors, and readers alike. It parasites on our labor, it thwarts our service to the public, it denies us access.” [The Atlantic]

Is the answer open access? Harvard University seems to think so: it’s encouraging its academics to publish their work in this way, claiming publishers are creating a situation which is “fiscally unsustainable [and] academically restrictive”. And they should know, it costs them $3.5 million a year, and their Librarian Robert Darnton has said a concerted effort should be made to move towards open access publishing. He advocates the creation of a national digital library, easily accessible to the general public, espousing the beliefs of Jefferson and Franklin that the health of the Republic was based on the free flow of ideas.

I am an advocate of open access publishing. I am also most certainly an advocate of pirate publishing. Anything that liberates knowledge from monetary confines, or any restriction that inhibits its free movement, is fine by me. I feel that the new paradigm in higher education is to monetise research product as a way of establishing the “worth” of a research project. The REF asks us to define what our work is “for”. It must in the first instance have utility, and thereafter it must have “impact” and “reach”. I don’t think that is what education is for but alas, severe budgetary restrictions mean universities have to fight for every penny. And the more worth their research carries, the more money they’ll get.

I think I will raise the Jolly Roger and join the pirate researchers.


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