Fatalist access to scientific knowledge: a case study

The  way academic and scientific knowledge becomes accessible online has been a hot subject for some time. I want to suggest that this process is structured according to the four cultures identified by Grid-group cultural theory. Here I am focussing on the  idea that there may be a Fatalist paradigm of knowledge sharing at work, which provides access in a capricious manner – and I make a tentative suggestion as to how this particular deficiency in the availability of access may be overcome .

You do not have access to this journal’: the Individualist Knowledge Paradigm

Over the last 15 years, scientific knowledge in both the natural sciences and the human sciences has been increasingly coralled into digital knowledge management systems that are Individualist in structure. The basic principle behind such systems is that ownership of knowledge is a private affair, to be rewarded by payment determined by contractual arrangements between individual readers (or their institutions) and the copyright holder. Just look up an academic journal online and you’ll see what this means in practice. Two options are presented. Either you already belong to an academic institution that has paid (significant) access fees to allow viewing of the journal articles, or you do not. In the latter case you can pay yourself for access to the whole journal or for an individual article. The cost of individual articles is so high that casual or general readers are strongly deterred. Further, academic institutions outside developed nations can not generally afford subscriptions, which puts their staff and students at a distinct disadvantage. Typically the cost of a 5,000 word online article is greater than the cost of a printed 100,000 word monograph. As Indian journalist Amulya Gopalakrishnan put it recently:

‘it is inexcusable that countries which could benefit most from the scientific debate are left out of the loop, simply because of prohibitive pricing (some journals cost up to 20,000 dollars, annually). This only widens the gulf between the state of research here and the US or Europe.’

The chief reason such profiteering is accepted is that most of those who would otherwise complain (academics in universities) are conveniently shielded from the raw ecomomics by their institution’s ongoing subscription on their behalf. A typical example of this ‘reality blindness’ is demonstrated by Bergstrom and Bergstrom’s otherwise illuminating article, The costs and benefits of library site licenses to academic journals (2004). This notes in passing that it is economically efficient for profit-maximising publishers to price journal access above what a portion of the potential readership is prepared to pay, but gives no further consideration of this matter as a problem. Indeed, it is assumed by the authors’ economic models that all ‘scientists’ are employed by universities and can therefore avail themselves of site licences. In spite of the fact that the majority of research is publically funded by means of general taxation, a small number of private publishing companies have managed to develop a profitable near cartel on access to the results of this research (for example, Springer, publisher of 20 academic journals, is valued at 1.65bn Euros). They profit by the exclusion of many. The claim that the prices charged for access reflect a realistic assessment of publishing costs is untrue. Since 1996, when many academic journals were digitised and essentially privatised, charges have spiralled – in a period when almost all other IT costs have plumetted.

Open Access: The Egalitarian Paradigm

Partly due to the patent nonsense of allowing publishing companies to profit unreasonably from the disemmination of what could be regarded as a public good, and partly due to demand from excluded institutions, alternative publishing models are springing up. These have been aided and abetted by the emerging realisation that online at least many of the traditional costs of publishing have been eliminated. In other words, while some significant costs remain, running a journal is cheaper than ever before. Furthermore, the marginal cost of adding a reader is close to zero. Open access journals and knowledge repositories are set to transform the field over the next decade, and it is possible that knowledge sharing will become ‘freer’ than it has been to date. This process is likely to be given impetus by recent crises in the dominant Individualist model of social organisation (the ‘global financial crisis’). This Egalitarian framework for knowledge sharing is wider than Open Access which it includes. Clay Shirky calls it “The Open Source pattern, part collaborative creativity, part organizational style, and part manufacturing process”. It goes further than merely promoting open acces to research and claims that intellectual property rights can actually hinder progress in scientific research. This open source pattern contests the Individualist knowledge space and is in turn opposed by it..

For a limited time only”: The Fatalist knowledge Paradigm

The typology used here, of Grid-group Cultural Theory, proposes that there are four cultural biases shaping the organisation of knowledge. Besides the Individualist and Egalitarian biases noted above, there is also a Hierarchical bias and a Fatalist bias. I am not going to mention the Hierarchical bias further here – except to quote in passing Adolf Hitler: “Let me control the text books and I will control the state” – before moving directly to Fatalism. While at first sight the idea of a Fatalist form of knowledge organisation appears hard to imagine, one has only to subscribe to a few academic publishers’ mailing lists to see it in action. Sage publishing, for example, periodically offers limited time free access to its otherwise costly academic publishing resources. A similar strategy has been adopted by the Royal Society as it transfers its journal publishing enterprise to a newonline platform. Free access is available until the end of March. For those who do not have the resources to subscribe to pay-to-view journals, these offers are somewhat welcome, but they represent a form of capricious knowledge sharing, in which the reader has no way of knowing in advance whether their access will be blocked or not, and in which, given limited resources, access to knowledge is limited to what is freely availably, not what is most useful. In this way capricious knowledge sharing promotes a situation analogous to that of someone who has lost their keys and must look for them under a lamp post – not because that is where the keys were lost, but because everywhere else is shrouded in impenetrable darkness.

A clearing house for news about limited-time free access knowledge would be a welcome development for readers, but presumably publishers would not have much incentive to provide details ahead of time, since this would increase competition to provide further free resources.


One thought on “Fatalist access to scientific knowledge: a case study

  1. it would be great to see data on whether cultural worldviews predict beliefs about the relative economic efficiency of intellectual property rights and open-source in production of ideas… But for an expressively overdetermined/clumsy solution — a defense of getting rid of intellectual property in order to enhance *mkt* incentives to inevent– see

    Science 6 March 2009:
    Vol. 323. no. 5919, pp. 1335 – 1339
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1158624

    Prev | Table of Contents | Next
    Promoting Intellectual Discovery: Patents Versus Markets
    Debrah Meloso,1* Jernej Copic,2 Peter Bossaerts3

    Because they provide exclusive property rights, patents are generally considered to be an effective way to promote intellectual discovery. Here, we propose a different compensation scheme, in which everyone holds shares in the components of potential discoveries and can trade those shares in an anonymous market. In it, incentives to invent are indirect, through changes in share prices. In a series of experiments, we used the knapsack problem (in which participants have to determine the most valuable subset of objects that can fit in a knapsack of fixed volume) as a typical representation of intellectual discovery problems. We found that our “markets system” performed better than the patent system.

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