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From Academic Pariah to Academic Saviour? Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia and Free Access Publishing

May 2nd, 2012 | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on From Academic Pariah to Academic Saviour? Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia and Free Access Publishing

Our Director Claire Squires asks whether it’s time for an academic reassessment of Jimmy Wales:

Yesterday, David Willetts, the minister of state for universities and science, announced at the Publishers Association and via the Guardian, that he has asked Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, to help them, along with Dame Janet Finch (former vice-chancellor of Keele University) to think through how to facilitate the open-access publication of public-sector funded research.

This move is in the context of an increasing disquiet from academics with, and movements from public-sector and private academic funders (including the Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust) against, academic publishing companies. There is currently a boycott of the STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) publisher Elsevier, with a signatory list of over 11,000. Its signatories are protesting at the huge margins made by some companies, particularly, but not exclusively, those that publish scientific research. Academics argue that public-sector funded research is packaged – with the aid of much free labour from academics in the form of peer review and editorial work – and then resold at very high cost via bundled packages of journals content to university libraries. The costs of journals have risen exponentially in recent years, swaying library budgets away from scholarly monographs and locking libraries into subscriptions. Essentially, it is hard not to argue that this is a system that leaches money from the public purse and inhibits free access to knowledge.

A move towards open access journals might have initially seemed emancipatory, but these are largely only ‘open’ from the perspective of consumers, switching the business model to an author-pays system, in which high charges are made per article publication. Manageable if you have a sizable research grant which allows for publishing subventions (though this system still diverts cash from the public to private and/or shareholder purses), but some subject areas (notably the humanities and social sciences) tend not to operate via large research grants, and so would be disadvantaged.

Questions about what value these publishers add to justify their place in the academic publishing supply chain might be addressed elsewhere, as could responses which suggest truly open access publishing models (though still safeguarding academic rigour through peer review and the editorial process), via individual institutional repositories, or the nation-wide one implied by Willetts.

Where might this move leave the academic vis-à-vis Jimmy Wales, though? For some time, academics have decried Wikipedia – or at least their students’ unthinking use of it in constructing essays (particularly when there are some really good resources that the library has paid for that they should be using!).

But we should be more honest. We all use Wikipedia to look stuff up, don’t we? And it often – despite its obvious flaws – provides us both with some fantastic links through to ‘more authoritative’ sources, and – particularly for the scholar of communication, media studies and publishing – an instructive model of crowdsourcing knowledge. After all, the venerable Oxford English Dictionary set itself up by crowdsourcing knowledge: people from around the world sent in suggestions for derivations of words.

More recently, Wikipedia has been at the forefront of championing a free internet in the face of attempts to tighten legislation in order to clamp down on piracy and copyright interventions. Last year, along with several other leading internet companies, Wikipedia blacked itself out for the day in protest at proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation, which would have forced search engines to block sites with pirated content.

And now, Wales has been brought in to consult on this next frontier: free access to the scholarly knowledge we produce. As a former publisher and now publishing studies academic, I’m very much aware of the value academic publishers can bring. In particular the technological systems they have developed have been enormously complex and sophisticated, dealing effectively with metadata, discoverability; meaning our work can be found, and read (or at least its abstracts, if you don’t have access to an academic library). But now I find myself more poacher than gamekeeper. What we produce, funded by the public purse, should be free to publish and free to read. This will need, though, substantial investment in effective publication systems – though perhaps this investment is no more than the collective journals budgets of our libraries. And (perhaps no bad thing) it will necessarily change the parameters of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the means by which university research in the UK is judged: an onerous system which in itself leaches resource (academics’ and assessors’ time) out of Higher Education.

Perhaps there is a middle-way: a more equitable sharing of profits (surplus, as we like to call it in universities) between academic publishers, universities, and their research funders, which allows income to return to the universities and the funding councils for reinvestment, but which acknowledges the effective role of academic publishers? Or perhaps the more radical solutions that Dame Janet Finch might propose in June are the way forwards.

Perhaps. But then again, perhaps Jimmy Wales has now turned into the academics’ Robin Hood, with Dame Janet Finch as a feisty Maid Marion. (Though the thought of David Willetts as Richard the Lionheart is one step too far for me.) Should we join this band of Merry Men? I’m tempted…