Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Some time ago I re-published in this blog The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto written by a young online activist called Aaron Swartz. This last Friday came the news that Swartz had committed suicide at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing charges for breaking into the MIT network to download paywalled academic articles that could have placed him in prison for a very long time.

I’m not going to speculate on the reasons why Swartz decided to end his life, or comment on the disproportionality of his charges. Instead, I’m going to highlight a remarkable campaign that has been spreading in the social media: hundreds, if not thousands of academics have been tweeting free download links to their own papers that have been published in subscription journals, in tribute to Swartz. One can only hope that this will be the beginning of an awakening that will see an end to the information monopoly that has the academic world in a stranglehold. After all, it’s the academics whose work has been essentially stolen by these corporate vultures that have never contributed anything to society.

The US government has, predictably, positioned itself firmly on the side of capital and against freedom of information and human progress. However, while they may be able to destroy the life of one man, but they won’t be able to terrorise the entire international academic community. The Open Access Manifesto is now more relevant than ever.

Edit: You can now honour Swartz’s memory with a couple of clicks by liberating an article from the JSTOR library using this bookmarklet.


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Physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra discusses in this talk the scientific thinking of Leonardo da Vinci. Capra argues that Leonardo was the first scientist to apply the scientific method based on systematic observation of nature. Leonardo, however, did not perceive the world as a combination of isolated objects. He was interested in living forms, patterns, processes, movement, growth and connections between things. He observed the world artistically by drawing it, which lead to a more holistic, qualitative grasp of phenomena. Capra sees Leonardo’s approach as more akin to systems thinking than the mechanistic Cartesian worldview still prevalent in science until quite recently. The talk was held at the Schumacher College in Totnes in May 2010.

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In this talk medical doctor Gabor Mate discusses the physiochemical mechanisms that cause addiction and how those mechanisms come about. He rejects the idea that addiction is genetically inherited and stresses instead the importance of the living conditions of the first few years of a person’s life when the most crucial brain development happens with humans. Especially important here is the relationship with the caregiving parent whose absence or high stress levels can be extremely detrimental to the normal growth of the infant’s brain. Mate links the high level of addiction problems in modern society to the destruction of traditional communities and their child rearing methods by the industrial revolution. He’s talking in particular about the Canadian First Nations, but the same surely applies to the rest of us living in (post)industrial societies. Of course, it’s not just addiction that’s a modern phenomenon. Depression, which is closely related to addiction in many ways, has also reached epidemic levels only fairly recently. Regardless of what we conceive as the actual reasons behind these epidemics, I think it’s important to realise that mental “disorders” (for want of a better word) are always social phenomena at heart and that we should be looking at the society as a whole and not just the individual people when trying to solve these problems.

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George Monbiot provides in his column in the Guardian some telling figures on the academic publishing monopoly:

“Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.

You might resent Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That’ll be $31.50.

Of course, you could go into the library (if it still exists). But they too have been hit by cosmic fees. The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I’ve seen, Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets, which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy. Journal fees account for a significant component of universities’ costs, which are being passed to their students.

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.

The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier’s operating profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2bn). They result from a stranglehold on the market. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles.

More importantly, universities are locked into buying their products. Academic papers are published in only one place, and they have to be read by researchers trying to keep up with their subject. Demand is inelastic and competition non-existent, because different journals can’t publish the same material. In many cases the publishers oblige the libraries to buy a large package of journals, whether or not they want them all. Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the biggest crooks ever to have preyed upon the people of this country – Robert Maxwell – made much of his money through academic publishing.

The publishers claim that they have to charge these fees as a result of the costs of production and distribution, and that they add value (in Springer’s words) because they “develop journal brands and maintain and improve the digital infrastructure which has revolutionised scientific communication in the past 15 years”. But an analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.” Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more.

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.”

Clearly, there is a useful role to be played here for the pirate movement, as outlined by Aaron Swartz in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. The pirates working or studying in universities are in a good position to crack this monopoly by mass-distributing paywalled academic content via p2p-networks. The current situation is not only hurting publicly funded research, but also thwarts a lot of potential independent research conducted outside established institutions, thus augmenting the inequalities of the knowledge society. Ultimately, the publishers are contributing negatively to the progress of science and society.

Obviously, the academic publishers are not going to give up their monopoly voluntarily, so civil disobedience is needed. The publishers have no leg to stand on here; they can’t argue that “stealing” their content jeopardises the creation of more content, since none of the content was actually produced or funded by them. The publishers themselves are shamelessly leeching on the public sphere, making profit on the taxpayer’s expense. By attacking their privileged position, the pirates would be doing an indisputable favour to the society at large. Indeed, this is the essence of piratism: taking back from corporations what they have originally stolen from the people.

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Aaron Swartz is an Internet activist, scholar and programmer. He’s been involved in the founding of such projects as Reddit, theinfo.org, Open Library and Demand Progress. Recently, he was charged with fraud for hacking into the MIT network to gain access to the paywalled academic content of the JSTOR archive. This manifesto, reproduced here in full, was written by Swartz in 2008.

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?”

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The controversy regarding Harvard fellow Aaron Swartz‘s alleged hacking into the MIT network to gain access to the JSTOR archive of academic journals has been widely in the news in the recent days (The New Yorker has a useful outline of the story). More interesting than the case itself, however, is the prevailing logic of academic publishing that is at the root of the incident.

At least in Europe most scientific research is still being funded mainly by the state. This makes perfect sense since the scientific method itself is inherently public. But it also gives commercial publishers of academic journals, and archivers such as JSTOR who sell subscriptions to these journals, the chance to profit on the tax-payer’s expense.

The typical procedure of academic publication has three steps:

  1. A research project produces a scientific article.
  2. The article is submitted to an academic journal for peer-review and publication for which the journal often takes a fee.
  3. The institution behind the research project pays for a subscription to the journal to gain a limited access to the published article, available only to those who are affiliated with the institute.

So, in the worst case scenario, the tax-payer has to pay three times for the same article and even then doesn’t get access to it. Institutions engaged in scientific research are typically forced to subscribe to a large number of journals since the researchers need them for reference, and this is where the archivers come into picture. Thus, the publishers and the archivers of academic journals are able to take advantage of their monopoly position to leech money out of publicly funded institutions.

And that’s not all. A large part of the articles in the JSTOR archive are actually from the public domain, including most of the catalog of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, dating all the way back to year 1665. Thus, JSTOR is profiting on historical documents whose copyright has long since expired and which should by all intents and purposes be made available to all as a part of our shared heritage.¹ And this is from an establishment that claims to be a “not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.”

Despite the recent proliferation of open access publishing, the ongoing privatization of universities is likely to lead to even more restrictions to the access to scientific publications. This can be seen as a kind of censorship, imposed to advance private interests.

(You can sign a petition in support of Aaron Swartz here.)

¹ Greg Maxwell was upstanding enough to make a chunk of these available as a torrent.

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