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.

The Recondite & the Difficult

Rather sounds like an old Western, doesn’t it? The Quick & the Dead. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. The Recondite & the Difficult.

The title of this blog post deviates slightly from the traditional themes of the American Old West, in that it is a quote from a piece of work by Tim Hitchcock entitled Digital Searching and the Re-formation of Historical Knowledge, and is absolutely nothing to do with Clint Eastwood or any of his ilk, but does refer to a stand-off of sorts, a Mexican stand-off if you will, between the old ways of researching and the new. I feel I may have lured you here under false pretences, but hang on in there.

I’ve been writing up a series of reports on the use of social media, augmented reality apps and virtual environments to enhance the more traditional exhibition format, and in doing so have started to explore the idea of cultural artefacts reinforcing social hierarchies, and of knowledge transcending physical formats like parchment, or paper. It’s all very vague and smells a bit “timey wimey” at the moment, but in the course of my research I had cause to take another look at Professor Hitchcock’s work and saw the following lines:

Both the methodologies of the social sciences and the evolution of the profession have effectively given prominence to specific types of information and relationships that privilege organic archives and recondite primary sources, interpreted by professionally trained individuals, as the source of legitimate truth…The most impressive footnotes in any monograph are those referencing archives and the most obscure of primary sources. We judge good scholarship by its engagement with the recondite and the difficult… [pp.82-83, 2007]

Of course, this is true. I’m often guilty of thinking it myself. And I can count any number of acquaintances who have raised their eyes at me when I’ve said I spent more time at my laptop than I do in an archive: some of them have no doubt made comparisons to other friends doing PhD research and compared the amount of time they’ve spent in the British Library to the time that I’ve spent there (thus far, none: don’t say anything, I have panic attacks about it).

And I’ve no doubt that there is nothing that compares to the visceral thrill of discovering something that may not have been seen for a hundred years, a new path through the information quagmire, a new link forged in the chain of our knowledge. But very often, with the increasing digitisation of archival content in many libraries and museums across the world, that information can be accessed digitally, with no need to travel hundreds of miles and to attempt to gain access to a cultural institution that may or may not accept your academic credentials and give you access to the data you seek. It doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult to find in order for it to be relevant.

But it’s all part of that old Devil called cultural hegemony again, conditioning us to think that the harder it is to find or understand, the more important it must be, and that those who can get access to it must occupy a special level in the social hierarchy. Of course, there are those who would perpetuate that notion of the ivory tower, but not quite as many as before.

Searching through a digitised archive, some would argue, doesn’t allow for those serendipitous moments when you open one thing and find another thing entirely, or you pull out an old picture and it takes you down some other intellectual road in quite a different direction. It’s hard for that to happen when your search terminology has to be so specific.

The recent OWOT (One Week, One Tool) “barn-raising” saw a team create a web application called Serendip-o-matic, which:

…connects your sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world. By first examining your research interests, and then identifying related content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, and Flickr Commons, our serendipity engine helps you discover photographs, documents, maps and other primary sources.

Serendip-o-matic allows you to save your searches and to then go back and start again with new search terms. Plus, it has a rather funky-coloured hippopotamus adorning the home page, which can only be a good thing. It is rather clunky at the moment but given it was bashed out in one week, it is actually a bit of a marvel. And it shows that the digital world is catching up – it wants to provide the researcher with those random items that produce our most profound leaps into the scholarly unknown. It’s got a sea-green hippo for God’s sake! It must want to help!

We’ve meandered gently away from my rather laboured Western analogy at the beginning of this blog post to zoology (albeit of the fantastical kind – it’s nearly 1.30 a.m. so you should probably just back away from me very carefully) but what I am essentially saying, or as Professor Hitchcock put rather more eloquently, is that technology is bringing the archive to us. It doesn’t have to be difficult and it can still provide interesting, worthwhile results. For those of us who require a bit of magic along the way, well, resources like Serendip-o-matic can do that too. Of course, the whole point of this is that I can now search for resources whilst still in my pyjamas, which I rather suspect they would frown upon at the British Library, and probably anywhere outside of my flat.