The cost of knowledge

There has been lots written about knowledge in recent times. How the interenet has made knowledge ‘open’ and how social media is enabling enterprises and individuals to share information cost effectively, reducing the trasncation cost of communicating and socialising to really low levels. And we’ve had the eLearning industry come and (nearly, hopefully, go) and got a place where Google is indexing print works as well as the web.  Knowledge is becoming very open indeed.

And yet we’re still in a position where one of the main industries that create knowledge, Higher Education, are bound by arcane copyright laws.  I say arcane because there is no reason why they need be.  We have a situation where Bristol University – but one of the Universities I could get stats for but not atypical – spends £376000 on books in 2006/7 or £22 per student and £2 455 847 on serials or £142 per student.  Thats nearly £2.5 million pounds in one year on buying in the knowledge produced mainly by academics funded to do their work by the taxpayer through research bodies like the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

There are approimately 171 Universities and Colleges of Higher Education in the UK.  They won’t all spend as much as Bristol.  But if the average spend was just half of that it would amount to £213 000 750. A lot of money for something where the cost of an open solution would be negligible and would actually be fit for purpose. 

But what really grates is that as a taxpayer and someone involved in research and who likes to knowl what people involved in similar research are doing there’s a big chunk of knowledge that I am excluded from unless I pay for it (again).  It’s copyrighted.  Danah Boyd has written about the frustration of being someone who is essentially doing Public Good and paid to share their knowledge of the world through the research work they’ve done, being tied down to a closed system.  Sure many academics can get around this by publishing drafts of their work or amended versions.  And some Universities are biting back by creating Open Access Repositories such as OpenDOAR (which now has over 1200 listings).  


But this is still a minnow against the publishing empires like Thomson-Reuters that control the knowledge around the Academy. 

So what could be done?  We’ll there are *huge* obstacles to change, most notably the fact that citations are the means through which University departments are measured and the existing process of peer review – the practices in academia are hard-wired into improving the quality of the work and hence the amount of money they get through the Research Assessment Exercise (REA) which is managed by the HEFCE.  However, if the HEFCE were brave enough to make true open knowledge part of their remit we could have publishers required to produce content under a more open attribution non-commercial license for example.  And if some publihers decided against doing this I’m sure there would be no-end of  social businesses willing to provide a simple open framework to publish on.  Providing a fit-for-purpose license for academic work should be key to HEFCE’s work and you’d then have the public able to engage with academic debate and see their output and be able to engage directly with it.  Moreover, we’d have URIs to point to.  We’d have concepts that could be referenced and aggregated and the data sliced any number of ways, because as good as Google Scholar is, the disjointed and incoherenet indexing of existing academic knowledge means relevant content only exists within the publishers portfolio of journals and not on the wider web of content.   We’re not all going to be able to be constructive in our commentary on string theory but there are sufficiently knowledgeable communities around any subject matter to make it worthwhile.

The HEFCE is currently undergoing a review of its next ‘bibliometric’ system, REF and it’s a good time to air these views so that we can start to get the knowledge out of the closed commercial silos and out into the world.


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