Quietly this week, while the UK was in uproar about the activities of the last big media company in a dying industry, something of far greater import happened in the world of media and information. The UK government announced that it would be making all research papers generated within its public universities available openly, online, for free.

Currently, the hundreds of thousands of research papers thus generated are sequestered in thousands of privately produced journals, whose subscriptions — for university and public libraries — are exorbitant, often running into tens of thousands of dollars. Access to individual papers — often small notes, on piddling experimental findings — can run from 20 to 40 dollars a pop.

Often run by sleazy ex- or current academics, the commercialisation of academic research has been one of the most crooked rackets of the information era, with the public footing the bill, and the private sector reaping the profits. Indeed, in recent years the prices became so exorbitant that smaller universities had to make deep cuts in the number of journals they subscribed to, thus actually reversing the degree of access that academics had to research and interpretation.

How this bizarre state of affairs came about is a case study in information-era capitalism. Academic journals were once upon a time produced by universities, at minimal cost, and circulated haphazardly, depending upon the scope and prestige of the institution concerned. Material in journals from Oxbridge and other prominent institutions were noticed immediately, those in minor journals could be bypassed or rediscovered several times, delaying progress by decades. For example, John Cade, the Australian psychiatrist, discovered and published — in Melbourne — on the role of lithium salts as a potential treatment for manic depression in the late 1940s. But it was another decade or more before other researchers elsewhere found the work, replicated it, and made it into a standard treatment.

In the 1970s and ’80s, several companies — Sage, Carfax, etc — sprang up to bundle journals together, and improve their global circulation, a good thing. Pretty soon, most of the smaller companies were bought up by larger publishing groups — which also began to bud off ever-smaller and more specialised journals they could sell to libraries. In an era when any notion of qualitative assessment of academic output was swamped by quantitative measurement of articles published in journals such as Review of Siberian Dendrochronology, or Time, Space, Disability, S-xuality — publications whose contributors often outnumbered their readers. Libraries bought ’em, no one read ’em, the academics got their career points and everyone was happy.

Then came the online revolution, and the whole circulation problem — which had created the research cartels — was solved in a trice. Academics would write the articles whose creation was part of the duties that gained them their salary, and universities would put up their research online for all to see, right? Uh, not so much. Big Academic Publishing (BAP hereafter) not only kept its hold on academic production, but also expanded it by the method that had become familiar to us in the online era — pricing that has no relationship to cost. It was in the online period, when the circulation cost of academic papers began to approach zero, that the prices started to go through the roof.

BAP came down like a ton of bricks on anyone who attempted to multiply distribute copies of “its” material, relying on that mind-stopping oxymoron of our era “intellectual property” — the idea that infinitely reproducible information was ownable in the same way as material property, such as a hammer or land. Tame think tank amphibia were happy to endlessly repeat the notion that the private market was the most rapid and efficient distributor of production known to humanity.

Trouble was, that position was obviously bollocks to anyone engaged in the actual activity — research, interpretation, thought — that BAP was enclosing and commodifying. Both humanists and scientists know that their discoveries and insights are made by a process that is essentially communistic — the free exchange of ideas, criticism and findings whether by seminar, in the lab, idle chat, email exchanges or formal papers. Intellectual work makes visible the essential absurdity of intellectual “property” — for any notion of propriety slows the process of collective creation.

Of course, in areas where huge profits are to be made, the temptation to academics to join the IP gold rush proves irresistible — but most scientists, etc, are working on the pigmentation of bile, the genitals of lizards or Alain Badiou, and opportunities for a payday are few and far between. Increasingly, as privacy walls have enclosed their research, they have started to resist, first formally and then more systematically, sharing their work outside the privatised journals. Guerilla groups of young academics have been using their access privileges to upload metered academic material en masse, thus making a mockery of the charging process.

Thus the UK government’s move was not without genuine intent, but it was also a response to a groundswell of movement from the people themselves — and part of a wider movement, in software, in design, in much more, which recognises that the information realm is inherently post-capitalist. Whatever need there is for forms of licensing, royalties, etc, are provisional arrangements, not the expression — as is the case with property — of a deep structure of the thing itself (i.e. with property, non-iterability — if I have the hammer, it means you don’t, etc).

In every area of our lives, from science to pharmaceuticals to culture, we would benefit from a major realignment of ownership, open sourcing and free exchange, with the bias towards the latter two. That doesn’t mean there can or should be open-slather — creators have to retain some sort of moral rights to control the form and use of what they create, payment for the labour of creation has to be factored in through charges, licenses, royalties, etc. But in the case of this academic work, payment had already been made — it was that freebie that proved so irresistible to BAP.

The UK government’s decision is one small victory; but it is up to the people who work in these fields, the doctors, scientists and academics, to en masse make the enclosure and sequestration of genuinely free thought — which is only free when it occurs outside the “free” market — impossible to enforce.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey