The Cost of Knowledge campaign: the commodification & liberation of academic research

We humans are thinking, speaking creatures, with a theoretically limitless capacity to analyse the world around us, and, if we are lucky, to also make sense of our own internal worlds. Under informational capitalism an elite class of 'thought robbers' exploit our mental and affective capacities. We, and especially the untenured 'we', the indy intellectual 'we', or the cultural activist 'we', toil at our texts only to perhaps then witness them being padlocked inside hierarchies of knowledge which we cannot afford to access. The 'University Inc.' or 'edu-factory' and its co-dependent sibling, academic publishing, siphon the worst qualities of managerialism and profiteering to support systemised structures of knowledge enclosures. In response, the cognitariat have started to rebel. In 2012 a mathematician blogged the withdrawal of his labour from the Elsevier academic behemoth. His stance triggered worldwide solidarity. While the unfolding narrative of grassroots mobilisation resonates with the official, overly earnest Open Access movement, it seems to hold more anarchic possibilities for the cooperative creation of unfettered systems of production and exchange of knowledge.

Universities are complicit in maintaining and extending hierarchies of exclusion. Academic work possesses all the ‘basic characteristics’ of what post-Autonomist theorists term ‘immaterial labour,’ that is, cooperative labour, grounded in the social, which produces ideas, symbols, relationships, and affects (De Angelis & Harvie 2009: 6). Such ‘biopolitical’ labour is the paradigmatic form of work within informatised societies. It opens up the human mind as a new territory of capitalist accumulation by harnessing and exploiting workers’ innate capacities for generating thought and language which are then translated into cultural and other materials. The ‘widespread' trend of 'education restructuring’ since the 1970s has transformed universities into a ‘terrain for marketisation agendas’ (De Angelis & Harvie 2009: 7). Increasing casualisation and bureaucratisation means that fewer people are paid adequately (or at all) for thinking, researching, writing and editing. Yet researchers must ‘publish or perish,’ and so strive to disseminate output via the most prestigious channels, thereby becoming unpaid sources of profit for academic publishers who depend on the ‘private appropriation of public labour’ (Pirie 2009: 32).

‘Mobiles Büro' created by Austrian architect and designer Hans Hollein in 1969

Yet who else in the publishing food chain (lawyers, insurers, printers, distributors, clerical support, cleaners, and so forth) works for free? The rationale is that payment is returned in the form of academic reputation which increases employment prospects, an increasingly dubious proposition especially given the over-supply of graduates in many regions. Indeed, the realisation by tertiary students, teaching assistants, and interns that their education debts might never be repaid is contributing to the increasingly organised, globalised, and translocally networked rolling waves of university protests and occupations (The Edu-Factory Collective, 2009).

The economics of academic publishing and the rise of the Open Access movement

The similarities that exist between the digital entertainment usage rights wielded by Big Content and those imposed by academic publishers illustrate how contemporary struggles around knowledge and property in different informational domains are interconnected. Publishers can typically charge those not affiliated with a fee-paying university or library between USD 30-40 for the right to read one journal paper, (frequently also placing a time limit of 24 hours access to the paper), a paper for which the author, peer reviewers, and editors were paid nothing for their ideas and intellectual labour. Such ‘economic parasitism’ exemplifies ‘pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it,’ according to journalist George Monbiot (2011).

However, as with file-sharing, researchers have begun resisting what they consider to be unfair anachronistic monopolies. A growing number are collectively withdrawing their labour and establishing alternative ‘open access’ (OA) systems of production and exchange in the form of OA journals and data repositories, harnessing Internet technologies to do so, as we will discuss. The growing quantity of accessible resources linked to the two main OA repositories, OpenDOAR (2012) with 2,195 e-journals, databases, and libraries, and ROAR (2012) with 2,924, are testament to how researchers and institutions are changing their own publishing and collecting practices and associated attitudes about research prestige and impact. And like the flow-on effects to national legislation and international treaties which the ‘copyfight’ has propelled, their aggregated actions have similarly propelled some significant changes in legislation, government policy, and corporate business practices. Open is the new black. Open is sexy. However, Open is not particularly queer. Frankly, it's just not that interesting, being more assimilationist than antagonistic.

Moreover, just as file-sharing created new markets for ancillary services such as VPNs, so to has the open access movement spawned a market or user base for other services, exemplified by projects like SHERPA (2012a) that not only manages OpenDOAR but also aggregates information about publishers’ and funders’ (often conflicting) OA policies. The growth of ‘open-access institutional repositories in universities to facilitate the rapid and efficient worldwide dissemination of research’ signals the formation of new informational flows and orders, which will inevitably experience disordering tendencies themselves (ibid., emphasis added). Like the free software movement, for example, the open access movement is underpinned and indeed driven by its own hierarchies of information and power which over time become entrenched. OA positions itself as being a staunch upholder of, rather than challenger to, existing copyright regimes, as the following statement by the Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, Peter Suber (2012), demonstrates:

(1) OA is not Napster for science. It's about lawful sharing, not sharing in disregard of law. (2) OA to copyrighted works is voluntary, even if it is sometimes a condition of a voluntary contract, such as an employment or funding contract. There is no vigilante OA, no infringing, expropriating, or piratical OA.

No 'piratical OA,' well, where's the fun in that? It's sounding pretty frumpy.

So the OA orthodoxy itself appears to be based upon a strict dogma allowing only one form of partially-decommodified access, rather than embracing the uncertainty of plurality. One might suspect that a new OA elite is carving out a niche for itself, insisting on another regime of informational order, replicating the old functions of segregation and exclusion. Or perhaps we are being too cynical. In this case study we step back from the history of open access to examine a recent example from the field of scientific publishing. It highlights some of the antagonisms that continue to fuel the OA movement, and, importantly, presents a snapshot of the affective dimensions to the collective struggle for open forms of knowledge exchange, at a point in time before these frustrations and desires have been subsumed by the new informational order of OA.

Since academic publishers began adopting electronic publishing around 1995 they have increasingly bundled together prestigious and little-wanted journals, and maintained ‘artificially high prices for pay-per-view and individual subscriptions,’ explains economist Ted Bergstrom (2010: 8). (Title bundling is analogous to the much criticised business model of cable TV where subscribers must pay companies like Foxtel to access 100s of channels they might not want rather than being able to buy cheaper subscriptions to individual shows or channels.) In a significant historical critique, Jean-Claude Guédon (2001) tracked how over the past 50 years publishers have transformed ‘scholarly journals—traditionally, a secondary, unpromising publishing venture at best—into big business.’ In so doing they radically changed the ‘status of the “document” and the ways in which individuals may interact,’ and also ‘deeply subvert’ the role of libraries (ibid.). Publishers have become accustomed to having the upper hand, negotiating individual, highly secretive multi-year ‘Big Deal’ contracts with each library or national consortia (Gowers, 2012b: 2), most of which have been unable to lower prices with a few exceptions like Stanford, Caltech, and the University of Wisconsin whose ‘hard bargaining’ forced better deals (Bergstrom, 2010: 4, 8). Exacerbating libraries’ financial burden has been the compounded annual increase in subscription fees built into in the Big Deals. Institutions who signed 5-year contracts with Elsevier in 1999, for example, experienced ‘a 40% increase in the subscription price over the life of the contract’ (whereas the US Consumer Price Index rose only by 13%), and if they renewed it faced ‘continued annual price increases of between 5% and 6%’ (ibid. 4). With ‘many libraries’ now having signed their third round of contracts, upon expiry between 2012-2014 these universities will be paying ‘almost twice as much in real terms as they paid for the Big Deal in 1999’ (ibid.). This production and distribution model based on extreme exploitation of raw materials (human cognitive and communicative capacities), inelastic pricing mechanisms, and exclusive copyright licenses limits the spread of knowledge. This in turn stunts how new knowledge can be built upon and by whom, much as the patent system does, leaving not much to grin about.

From Tove Jansson's (Finn Family Moomintroll) illustrated 'Alice in Wonderland'

In the UK there has been little academic research to develop a ‘critical political economy’ of academic publishing, leaving analysis to ‘politicians and the major charitable foundations that support scientific enquiry’ (Pirie, 2009: 32). For example, the Wellcome Trust commissioned a study to compare the ‘subscriber-pays’ and an ‘author-pays’ (where the author/funder/institution pays for the ‘publishing services’ but where the final paper is published in an online open access journal, for free) models (SQW Limited, 2004: iii). Wellcome’s starting proposition was that an ‘organised’ and equitable information ordering regime for the ‘output of scientific endeavour’ is an ‘important activity for any sophisticated society’ (17). The final report concluded that an author-pays model was a ‘viable alternative’ which could deliver ‘high-quality, peer-reviewed research at a cost...significantly less than the traditional model while bringing with it a number of additional benefits’.1 However, the economic motifs of self-funding publication can undermine a work’s status because of its similarity to “vanity publishing,” a tendency unacknowledged by the report. If the author must pay then they will get published irrespective of quality, just as fee-paying students usually get passed because of university management encouragement of, and sometimes overt pressure to, ‘soft mark’ their assignments. Self-publishing sets up a class system between well endowed and poor authors.

In academic publishing’s ‘complex’ dual market, supply and demand are determined by factors relating to ‘current research concerns and the quality of output’ whereas the associated commercial ‘shadow’ market is ‘relatively conventional,’ with publishers selling a product (journals) to libraries (SQW Limited 2004: 1). These publishers are not homogeneous as they combine ‘profit-maximising companies’ with other organisations ‘seeking a satisfactory profit or surplus’ (ibid.). Libraries with fixed budgets can only ‘respond to price’ by adjusting their purchases accordingly. If a library requires a specific journal for subscribers to be kept up to date with their field’s latest developments, it cannot purchase something similar from another publisher as these are unique goods with a defined status and cachet. For instance, the British medical journal The Lancet is nearly 200 years old, making it difficult for a potential rival publication to gain market purchase, unless there is a collective decision by researchers worldwide to redirect their labour to an agreed replacement journal.

However this begs the question of whether more equitable ways to disseminate new “reputable” knowledge can be created, just as the Internet-based Gutenberg Project disseminates “old” knowledge (Project Gutenberg, 2012). As the SQW report notes, ‘electronic archiving’ on the internet is relatively cheap and facilitates access to timely research outputs (17). The absence of an ‘efficient, centrally-funded electronic archive’ challenges traditional publishers’ relevancy, and a ‘de facto’ open archive offering ‘very cheap or free document delivery’ might organically emerge and become the global ‘norm’ (ibid, emphasis in original). The momentum generated by the Cost of Knowledge campaign suggests that this norm might develop sooner rather than later.

Disruptions to the info-order of academic publishing: The Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier

On 21 January 2012 a blog posting on this subject by eminent Cambridge mathematician Professor Tim Gowers generated a snowball effect, over time propelling more than 11,000 like-minded academics to withdraw their labour from one bastion of the ‘feudal powers’ Monbiot criticises (Chatterjee, 2012). The target was Dutch publisher Elsevier.

In 2009, despite the global recession and a ‘challenging academic budget environment,’ Elsevier, a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier (which owns Scopus citation database service and LexisNexis amongst numerous other holdings), reported revenue of £1,985m and a profit of £693m, an increase of 22% on the previous year’s figures (Reed Elsevier 2010: 5). By the year ending 31 December 2011 Elsevier’s total annual revenue had climbed to £2,058m, generating an adjusted operating profit of £768m, an increase of 6% from 2010 returns (Reed Elsevier 2012: 13). Although it predicted that underlying revenue growth would be ‘modest,’ it reported that sales of databases and tools had grown strongly, due to academic research becoming ‘increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative across geographies’ (ibid.). With a portfolio holdings totaling around 1,250 journals and 700 books in 2011, Elsevier describes itself as the ‘leading journal publisher in scientific publishing’ and hence it expects that it would ‘attract criticism...directed at publishing as a whole’ (Reed Elsevier 2012: 13; Hassink & Clark, 2012: 833). A handful of main players comprise the academic publishing oligopoly, and by August 2012 Elsevier (2012) was listing 2712 journals, 19,838 books, and 20 bibliographic databases on its website.

Tim Gowers’ (2012a) online cri de coeur entitled ‘Elsevier — my part in its downfall’ (a play on one of Spike Milligan’s book titles) expounded the publisher’s ‘heavily criticized’ business practices: their exorbitant prices, bundling of indispensable journals with inferior ones, ‘ruthless’ cutting off of libraries who attempt to negotiate better deals, and support for controversial intellectual property and copyright legislation such as the Research Works Act (RWA), which, like SOPA and PIPA, would restrict knowledge circulation. After examining the possible reasons why scholars might be complicit in supporting Elsevier (motivated by a perceived moral obligation to support the mathematics community by reviewing papers, for example), and determining that eventually (but not soon enough) the Internet itself would bring an end to the ‘abuses,’ Gowers decided that he would both ‘refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals’ and also publicly declare his disavowal. He argued that ‘the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it [a boycott] becomes,’ and suggested that someone create a website ‘where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically’ (ibid.). Sidestepping the ‘moral argument’ about the privatisation of knowledge, Gowers focused on practical matters, saying ‘we have much greater bargaining power than we are wielding at the moment, for the very simple reason that we don’t actually need their services’ (ibid.). If enough scholars participated in the ‘powerful gesture’ of a boycott it might be ‘even powerful enough for other sciences to follow suit eventually’ (ibid.). Interestingly, Gowers did not speak of other informational fields in which the same forms of exploitation of cognitive and symbolic labour is rife, such as the arts and the humanities, although some practitioners from these fields would later participate in the proposed boycott.

Gowers’ post sparked an immediate online dialogue. 478 comments had been posted to his blog as of 21 August 2012 (most of them immediately following publication) from fellow mathematicians and scientists worldwide, indicating the globalised and cross-disciplinary nature of this particular manifestation of the knowledge enclosures. Indeed, this was not a new problem. As Ted Bergstrom (2001: 184-5) had noted in his paper ‘Free Labor for Costly Journals?’ in which he compared the costs and reputation of nonprofit and commercial journals in the economics field, that ‘while the nonprofits are supplying most of the information used by economists, the commercial presses are absorbing the lion’s share of library budgets.’ Thus intellectual resources that could be considered as belonging to the commons because of their relative affordability, were in danger of being abandoned because although nonprofit journals were significantly more-cited they nevertheless did not possess the same ‘prestige’ as the less-cited ‘price-gouging’ commercial journals (183, 197). Bergstrom’s solutions in 2001 had involved scholars educating themselves, and then both collectively redirecting their intellectual labour and also influencing their employing institutions’ purchasing decisions. Proposed actions included scholars themselves expanding the number of ‘elite’ and ‘specialised’ nonprofit journals, supporting the ‘reasonably priced new electronic economics journals’ which had already entered the field, and ‘punishing overpriced journals’ by participating in a ‘partial boycott’ against those identified in Bergstrom’s ‘rogues’ gallery’ (192-4). Such a boycott would include ‘cancellation of library subscriptions to overpriced journals,’ ‘defections by editors and editorial boards,’ mindful choices by authors of where they would publish, and a ‘referees’ boycott’ (194-6).

Eleven years later some of these recommendations were reiterated in the lengthy comments posted to Gowers’ blog article, as mathematicians and scientists detailed personal experiences of being exploited, and stating their opposition to ‘gating scholarly knowledge’ (ibid.). Some commenters posited how the ‘community of scholars’ itself could build a ‘new style of peer-review,’ for instance, by applying ‘some of the technologies and methods used now by many [web]sites to judge comments and replies’ (ibid.). Others flagged earlier campaigns within specific countries and disciplines against Elsevier and other major academic publishers including Springer and Wiley. For instance, in 2006 editors had deserted Elsevier’s The Journal of Economic Theory and in its stead launched the low cost journal Theoretical Economics, the venture supported through server space at the University of Toronto (UT), a permanent archive of published articles hosted at the UT Library, and typesetting costs covered by authors’ ‘modest’ submission fee of USD75 (Theoretical Economics 2012). Similarly, there have been other ‘mass resignations of entire Elsevier editorial boards over pricing concerns,’ with the Journal of Logic Programming (1999), the Journal of Algorithms (2003), and Topology (2006), spurring the mathematical community to found replacement journals such as The Journal of Topology (Arnold & Cohn, 2012: 828). Such examples demonstrate how disruption of an existing info-order (knowledge enclosure) can have productive effects (knowledge liberation). This highlights how the first phase of grassroots responses to academia’s knowledge enclosures tends to be differentiated and disaggregated, locally coordinated networked translocally, but not across disciplines. Certainly the Internet has been the core enabling techno-social assemblage in these scenarios.

On 22 January 2012, within just one day of Gower’s blog posting, mathematician and programmer Tyler Neylon (2012) announced that he had built a website called The Cost of Knowledge as the boycott’s electronic headquarters. By 26 January a commenter on another science blog had reviewed the website’s signatories, observing that ‘Very very prominent names in the mathematics community have shown up straight away and in such an extent that the tipping point where refereeing becomes significantly harder in certain subfields might already be within reach,’ underscoring how professional reputations can tactically enhance online campaigns’ impact and scale (Farrell 2012, comments).

12,856 researchers ‘from all subjects’ had signed the pledge as of 26 October 2012, with many adding their own commentary on what geologist John Faithfull described as the ‘appalling swindle’ perpetrated on ‘authors, libraries, the general public, and the bodies who fund public science’ (ibid, comments).

Thirty-four distinguished mathematicians published an online statement on 8 February 2012 presenting the issues that ‘confront the boycott movement,’ analysing the mechanics of academic publishing within the pre-electronic paradigm including in the types of cognitive labour involved in research and its dissemination, and considering the ‘significant’ transformations brought about by the transition to e-publishing (Gowers 2012b, emphasis added). So within just over a fortnight an idea shared on a blog had materialised into what some of its most high profile protagonists described as a ‘movement,’ albeit a movement that was ‘anything but monolithic’ as participants had ‘different goals’ in the short and long-term (ibid. 1, 4). This recognition of diverse motivations for, and forms of, participation in the boycott suggest that the phenomenon shares some of the qualities of New Social Movements (NSMs) that sociologists such as Alain Touraine (2008) describe. NSMs are bottom-up rather than top-down emergent phenomena, experiential rather than (solely) intellectual, embracing (a relative) plurality of attitudes and expressive actions that engage all the senses, and so forth. NSMs are evolutionary in nature, although they hold the potential to produce revolutionary change.

The boycotters had focused their ‘discontent’ on Elsevier rather than its competitors because of mathematicians’ ‘widespread feeling’ that this corporation was the ‘worst offender’ and ‘most egregious’ on all counts; within its medical titles, for example, it had scandalously repackaged sponsored articles from pharmaceutical companies in the guise of bona fide journal papers (ibid. 2-3; Goldacre, 2009). The signatories pointed out that prestigious journals’ reputations had been created through the labour of authors, referees, and editors who had worked ‘at no cost to the publishers’ over many years. Yet typically the journals’ names were owned by the publisher, which made it ‘difficult for the mathematical community to separate this valuable object that they have constructed from its present publisher’ (Gowers, 2012b: 2). This observation alludes to more than the simple corporate branding that is in itself an important profit driver in informational capitalism; this is about a brand’s (eg, Journal X) reputation that is grounded in the materiality of the cognitive and communicative labour through which it had earned its prestige, that is, on the contributions themselves and the integrity of the evaluation processes.

Some also also set up a Twitter account tagged ‘The Cost of Knowledge’ (2012), which as of 8 October 2012 had 915 followers and 264 tweets, most of which announced developments in various Open Access and Open Knowledge campaigns. While The Cost of Knowledge website served as a the primary online tool for gathering signatures and commentary supporting the Elsevier boycott, the Twitter feed broadened the conversation by highlighting other instances of the digital enclosures such as ACTA, thereby connecting specific concerns emanating from the fields of education and scientific research to other domains within info capitalism. Such interlinking reveals trends and patterns on a macro-level, while also providing important detail on the micro level.

Social media helps campaigns to build momentum, attract publicity and forge connections with other relevant counter-movements. A wiki page set up by quantum computing pioneer Michael Nielsen (2012) listed over 120 links to mainstream media as of mid-July 2012, including articles in Forbes, The New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and der Spiegel, as well as links to numerous blog articles, some news aggregators and responses by Elsevier. Scholars discussing the boycott on their own blogs attracted further commentary and links. A rich, expanding discursive mesh of information and opinions encompassing print and electronic formats was manifesting in the mediascape, building momentum by keeping the issue alive and broadening the public conversation to other instances of knowledge enclosures.

However, there was not a full consensus, as a minority expressed various reservations about the efficacy of the boycott. A neuroscientist worried that a ‘crucial set of publication outlets’ could be lost by ‘embargoing one company based on a handful of misdemeanors,’ thus ‘harming science’ (Farrell 2012, comments). Another scientist argued that there was ‘little value in disorganised science,’ indicating a belief that publishers were instrumental to the maintenance of quantifiable informational orders within specific domains of human inquiry (ibid.). For some objections were personal, such as another neuroscientist who flagged that to boycott ‘1/3 of my field’s journals’ would be tantamount to ‘career-suicide’ (ibid.). Others took a broader view, one for instance pointing out that in starting a journal ‘from scratch, the hard part is to get a brand value to start with, and this is no trivial work’ (ibid., emphasis added).

Much of the online discourse examined the larger issue of the commodification of knowledge. Academic publishers charged British universities around £200m annually to ‘access scientific journals, almost a tenth of the £2.2bn distributed to them by the government’ for conducting university research, Alok Jha (2012) from The Guardian reported in a substantial feature article. Moreover, the big publishers enjoyed ‘profit margins of 35% or more’ partially by obtaining their ‘raw materials’ for free, and even when they allowed scholars to lodge copies of their own papers on their universities’ archives, ‘draconian’ copyright restrictions often made ‘subsequent scientific inquiry without prior permission’ impossible (ibid.). Hence The Economist warned that ‘academic publishers might find they have a revolution on their hands’ if the boycott grew and transformed into an ‘Academic spring’ (Economist, 2012).

Some months later (probably coincidentally) the Motion Picture Association of America (2012: 20-21) reported that in the first half of 2012 Elsevier had issued more than ‘78,000 takedown notices regarding infringement of thousands of health sciences and science/technology journal articles.’ Although over 75% of the time websites had removed the offending articles (albeit sometimes tardily) it was ‘very common for the same article to reappear quickly, on the same or a related site’ (ibid.). Obviously Elsevier was ready to take action when it perceived that its own (notional) profits were being threatened, notwithstanding that, as with ‘pirated’ entertainment media, it is highly improbably that all 78,000 takedowns represented lost sales. Yet as Elsevier boycotter Linh H. Nguyen from the Hanoi Stock Exchange Research Center - Economics noted, profits in the academic publishing are almost entirely built on ‘progressively enclosing the research commons, thus effectively stealing from public knowledge’ (Neylon 2012, comments). As always in informational capitalism, social constructions of piracy and theft depend upon who is speaking, and to whom.

Returning to the Elsevier boycott, the mass exodus of scientific contributors from a key site of intellectual exploitation rapidly generated roll-on effects. Elsevier withdrew its support for the strongly contested Research Works Act (RWA) in the US Congress which would have prevented ‘taxpayer-funded research to be made freely accessible online’ (Chatterjee 2012). The RWA, along with SOPA and PIPA, has been described as ‘intellectual land-grab too far’ by IT writer Glyn Moody (2012), his use of metaphor underscoring how the concept of the commodification of human cognitive capacities has entered the public imagination in a way in which the relatively esoteric discourse of Autonomist theory on the same subject has not. If the Bill’s own sponsors had not subsequently withdrawn it in light of the ‘new and innovative model’ of open access publishing, it would have affected not only American researchers but scholars worldwide due to the internationalisation of research (Howard, 2012). As the British medical journal The Lancet stated, ‘Science is a public enterprise’ (Lancet 2012). Yet the RWA, fueled by libertarian ideology opposing governments mandating anything of a cultural or social nature, had sought to enclose knowledge which currently the US government required its state-funded research to be made free to the public one year after publication.

In the framework of informational capitalism corporate branding and reputation becomes increasingly important, as stock values can plummet in light of instantly transmitted negative perceptions and rumours. On 27 February 2012, perhaps astounded by the international momentum the boycott had generated in just one month, Elsevier (2012) issued an open letter to the mathematics community in which it stated its intention to lower base line pricing, to open the archives of 14 core mathematics journals ‘from four years after publication,’ and to withdraw its support for the RWA. Somewhat unconvincingly Elsevier claimed that its RWA withdrawal stemmed from listening not to the boycotters but to those ‘authors, editors, and reviewers’ who continued to work with it, reiterating that they wanted to play a ‘constructive role’ in the ‘broad discourse right now about how data sets can be made more broadly accessible’ (Howard 2012). In a second open letter dated 2 May 2012 Elsevier (2012) announced other changes to its publishing and pricing models, including expanding the open archives to 43 journals and increasing sponsored access to research for developing nations.

Then in June 2012 two of Elsevier’s senior publishing executives, Laura Hassink and David Clark (2012: 833), responded to the mathematics community via a piece the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, in which they firstly admitted that the company had not ‘done a good job communicating what we do’ and then addressed the concerns of ‘Professor Gowers’s protest’ (a reductive personalisation of the boycott in our view) about pricing, bundling and access. Elsevier claimed that its prices were ‘typically...lower than those of other mathematics publishers,’ bundling was not mandatory and furthermore its disappearance would have a ‘detrimental impact on access to the research literature,’ their titles were available in the poorest countries through the Research4Life program, and that mathematicians were free to post their manuscripts on the independent open access platform arXiv (834). They also admitted that the community’s ‘critical feedback’ on the RWA had been ‘very sobering’ for them (835).

It is hard not to assume that the self-mobilisation of thousands of scholars that had been triggered by Gower’s original blog posting and facilitated by Neylon’s construction of a web platform had not played some part in Elsevier’s movement towards a (still limited) form of open access. Here, as with some of the P2P facilitating platforms discussed earlier, tools and expertise embedded within the structures and flows of info capitalism had provided the means for new social formations to coalesce and mobilise. Individuals used Internet technology to announce their intentions and create a mass visibility. Emergence in the mediated sphere contextualised and dramatised their aggregated individual material actions of withdrawing ideas and labour from one part of the knowledge enclosures. This action had an immediate disordering effect on the domain of academic publishing, as thousands committed publicly to not publishing, refereeing and/or undertaking editorial work. Moreover, and this is significant, unlike some other provocations using the Internet (such as DDOS attacks by Anonymous for example, the Internet blackout days protesting treaties and legislation like ACTA and SOPA, or annual events such as (Adbusters') Buy Nothing Day), as the scholars’ actions were ongoing they could continue to destabilise the old publishing model. The exodus might not be a flash in the pan flash mob, but a collective action signaling the generation of a new informational order. This order would in the first instance co-exist with the old order, but as momentum inevitably gathers, perhaps it could supersede it.

However, as Moody (2012) notes, this was only the ‘most visible revolt in recent years’ against publishers’ ‘exorbitant profits’. At the ‘dawn of open access’ in 2000 the Public Library of Science (PLoS) had issued a comparable call, yet few of the 34,000 signatories would go on to actually boycott offending publishers (ibid.). This is the danger of so-called slacktivism, probably particularly with e-petitions (rather than a DDOS action for example), with its potential to persuade the mouse-clicker that an act of electronic civil disobedience does not necessarily need to be accompanied by associated embodied actions (such as refusal to materially participate in exploitative informational regimes). Yet PloS now publishes seven peer-reviewed open-access journals, and presumably many of its contributors, reviewers, and readers have transferred at least some of their intellectual labour to this outlet, a move with parallels to a boycott of existing platforms. However, PloS contributors pay for publishing, with standard authors’ fees ranging between US$1350 and US$2900, with exceptions made for writers from ‘Low and Lower Middle Income Countries’ and also for some individuals who request a fee waiver (Public Library of Science, 2012). Here is more evidence that the disruptive and disordering tendencies inherent within informationalism produce not chaos, but rather new ordering regimes that in many ways appear to replicate the hierarchies, classifications, and social boundaries of the old ordering regimes.

New austerity, new (or old?) info-orderings

Today an Open Access movement exists, one that perhaps has been propelled by a more generalised and popular groundswell against various legislative instruments and corporate practices restricting data and knowledge flows. Open Access shares some qualities with the general form of New Social Movements (NSMs), especially in that its program and demands are shaped by multiple agents who do not necessarily share the same political position on other issues. In other ways it differs from NSMs in that OA engages people on a purely intellectual level, rather than on an embodied, multi-sensory level. Its public statements reveal it to be earnestly serious rather than seriously playful or celebratory. But whatever it is, both “orthodox” OA and inchoate, prefigurative, and as yet still fluid campaigns like the Cost of Knowledge have agency in that they inspire and induce changes in the existing informational order. Just as in the case of file-sharing, when a shift occurs in the public imagination about rights to access to knowledge and cultural production, the old order cannot expect to go unchallenged. We give a couple of examples here.

In May 2012, in a speech to the AGM of the Publishers Association’s annual general meeting, UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts (2012), flagged the government’s move towards mandating open access policies. He described academic research as resembling not a ‘sausage machine’ but an ‘ecosystem with subtle and intricate interdependences.’ It was one of the UK’s ‘greatest economic assets’; 120,000 of the 1.7 million academic articles published worldwide came out of British research, and 400,000 were published in the UK. Although the UK did not have many academic libraries and research institutes, 5,000 of the world’s 23,000 peer-reviewed journals were published in the UK, making journals an ‘important export industry, with perhaps 80% of their revenues coming from sales abroad.’ Rather counter-intuitively, it was such success that had led the Coalition government (an increasingly awkward mashing of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) to introduce higher fees and loans which would be ‘repaid by graduates, despite the intense controversy, to ensure our universities are well funded even as public spending is being cut back.’ (ibid.)

Student debt is now recognised as a societal problem, at least by students and academics if not by universities’ upper management; in the US it has now passed credit card debt in total volume, according to non-partisan think tank Education Sector (Carey & Dillon, 2011). In the UK, the privatisation and marketisation of tertiary education has been in train since 1990. The 1998 reforms instituted ‘up-front means-tested tuition fees of £1,200’ (Dearden, Fitzsimons & Wyness, 2011: 9). This was followed by the Higher Education Act 2004 (implemented in 2006) ushering in a new level of expropriation via personal debt, as ‘variable tuition fees of up to £3,000’ were introduced (Callender 2012: 78). Following the government’s adoption of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance’s recommendations, annual fees could rise to a maximum of £9000 from 2012 (Ibrahim, 2011: 415). This last economic and social assault sparked ‘high profile, nationally and locally organised student protests’ and a ‘wide geographical spread’ of university occupations around Britain in 2010-11 (ibid. 415, 418). In the post-Global Financial Crisis period, some national austerity measures also complemented a global ‘cost-sharing agenda’ within higher education, with reforms partially transferring the financial burden of the production of intellectual goods and services away from the State and onto individuals, to the benefit of both corporations (who prosper from research) and government.

However, perhaps motivated by the wish to deflect criticism around the exploitation and penury associated with students’ mounting debt burden, Willetts (ibid.) announced the government’s commitment to the ‘principle of public access to publicly-funded research results’ so as to ‘maximise the value and impact’ generated by UK research. Moreover, taxpayers (that is, investors) ‘should not be kept outside with their noses pressed to the window’ of an ‘exclusive’ academic space constructed by paywalls. Instead there must be a ‘right to roam freely’ across the publicly-funded UK research landscape. This would return scientific and commercial outcomes, just as the OA policies of the Human Genome Project and the US National Institute of Health had done. Tellingly, Willetts used the example of the music industry to warn academic publishers against clinging onto outdated business models. This industry had ‘lost out by trying to criminalise a generation of young people for file sharing,’ whereas companies ‘outside the music business such as Spotify and Apple, with iTunes’ had developed a ‘viable business model’ for online access. Eventually publishers would need to commit to ‘green’ or ‘gold’ standards, green being the requirement to ‘make research openly accessible within an agreed embargo period, and gold meaning that ‘research funding includes the costs of immediate open publication, thereby allowing for full and immediate open access while still providing revenue to publishers.’ The RoMEO database of publishers’ archiving policies currently uses a 4-tier system to delineate a more fine-grained set of options (SHERPA 2012b). Philanthropic medical science funder the Wellcome Trust has already adopted the gold standard, and it is anticipated others will follow.

The gold standard implies that State and philanthropic funds would now directly go to the multi-billion pound publishing oligopoly, rather than as in the current scenario where the support for this lucrative private enterprise comes in the form of researchers’ wages. OA journals often require authors themselves pay for the privilege of publishing, as noted earlier. So do we have more of the old model simply dressed in different clothing? Even if this is the case, the fact that a right-wing government appears to be going along with, if not setting the agenda for, key demands of the OA movement is significant, if only in that it might be recognising a new domain of accumulation and encouraging industry to jump in and somehow commodify the decommodification processes already in train before other agents have liberated the past and the future knowledge flows!

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, photograph by Aisii

This possibility suggest that we should not assume that OA is necessarily a socially radical movement. Indeed, indications are that the opposite is true, that OA is just one more system for maintaining the status quo in a changing information society. As Suber (2012) notes, the OA campaign ‘focuses on literature that authors give to the world without expectation of payment.’ Therefore production is limited to those who already enjoy a high degree of economic and social privilege, probably already employed as intellectuals and researchers (albeit precariously), and whose ‘disinterested desire to advance knowledge’ comes with a ‘strong self-interest in career-building’ (ibid.). As always, the independent, non-affiliated researcher (of whom there are quite a few, especially in the arts and humanities) is left out in the cold, although she or he would be able to access the work of others now at no cost. By reducing costs for the publisher this ‘royalty-free literature’ ensures profits can still be extracted, if not through the payment of subscriptions anymore, then by the provision of other services for which people are willing to pay such as ‘priced add-ons or enhancements’ (ibid.).

Evidence exists that institutions themselves are beginning to adopt new modes of accessing and sharing research artefacts, which also requires that they rethink things that “stick” to research and researchers, like prestige, impact, and reputation. In April 2012 the Harvard Library announced that academic publishers had made the ‘scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive,’ creating an ‘untenable situation’ for the library as its annual journal bill had climbed to $USD3.75m (Harvard Faculty Advisory Council, 2012). Without identifying specific culprits by name (and Elsevier would later publicly deny that Harvard had been referring to them), the press release revealed that prices for ‘online content from two providers’ had risen by 145% over the past six years, far exceeding the CPI. In light of such ‘prohibitive’ costs the library would change its subscriptions, and encouraged faculty and students to both lobby for change via their professional organisations, and to adjust their own publication practices in line with OA principles.

Also in April 2012 Open Book Publishers, a small non-profit publisher of peer-reviewed Humanities and Social Sciences books, made its entire catalogue available for free online viewing via Google Books, which was a landmark in UK academic publishing (Middleton 2012). Placing their business decision in the context of the ‘academic spring,’ they noted that profit-driven publishers overlooked much ‘valuable research coming from fields not considered to be ‘commercially viable.’ This not only impacted on academic jobs but gave the academic presses a ‘huge amount of power in setting our research agenda,’ a point seldom made in the OA discourse. Giving weight to our assertion that disordering of existing informational regimes of expropriation and accumulation opens up new avenues for both capitalist exploitation and also experimental anti-capitalist or alternative systems of social relations, Open Book Publishers announced their intention to ‘expand’ their operations by ‘moving into academic journals and educational resources.’

The mood for change, and the development of coordinated strategies and programs to realise it, is occurring on an international level. For instance, in July 2012 the European Commission’s (2012) Science in Society (SIS) Programme released a series of policies on access to scientific information, outlining the EC’s vision to ‘ensure economic growth and to address the societal challenges of the 21st century’ by optimising the ‘circulation and transfer of scientific knowledge among key stakeholders in European research’ (ibid.). In a similar vein, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC 2012) was formed to ‘correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system.’

Recognising the ‘unprecedented opportunities created by the networked digital environment to advance the conduct of scholarship’ the organisation describes its role as a ‘catalyst for change,’ via advocacy, education, and business incubation pathways (ibid.). Although 800 institutions are members, most are from the global North with none from Africa or South America for example, suggesting perhaps that the oft-mentioned ‘digital divide’ exists even within supposedly socially progressive, internationalised ventures. Does this mean that regions which would arguably benefit the most from OA are doomed to be the next site of exploitation from what we might call “Big Publishing,” just as Big Tobacco has targeted unregulated countries such as Indonesia as other nations led by Australia restrict their marketing and distribution options? Certainly, this exclusion supports our suspicion that, like the free software movement, the OA movement will struggle to challenge info-capitalism (not that that is OA’s stated aim!) as long as it limits its scope to only established nodes within the heartlands of advanced technology.

Concluding thoughts

‘The only price to pay to get knowledge have [sic] to be intellectual effort not money,’ Moroccan social scientist Yousra Afailal Tribak commented on The Cost of Knowledge campaign website (Neylon 2012). This position, seemingly shared by the thousands of scientists, researchers, and other “knowledge workers” and “immaterial labourers who participated in that campaign, is at odds with the priorities of neoliberal informationalism which identifies, encloses, and exploits for private profit communicative and intellectual processes which previously were seen as belonging to the common. A range of technologies and legal instruments are fundamental to these commodification processes. As the academy is a major site of intellectual production, and therefore of commodification, it has also become the staging ground for knowledge and learning liberation movements, seeding new circuits of discourse and exchange.

As we have seen, capitalism not only creates new informational orders, but also inspires and propels the formation of counter-orders of informationalism, which might be spontaneous and chaotic, or coordinated and highly organised. Certainly there appears to be no overarching proscriptive political program or ideology linking the various manifestations although certain memes such as ‘open access’ or ‘open knowledge’ flow through many of them. Eventually, and sometimes quite rapidly, the info-capital nexus of corporate and State agents might milk these counter-orders for their ideas, and coopt their methods, content, and networks, in the inevitable tango of territorialisation and deterritorialisation. We can see this happening to some extent in the “official” Open Access movement, in which new organisations reap (albeitly not large) income from researchers who must still pay for the privilege of publishing in OA journals. Or in the government departments established to monitor institutional adherence to the new OA order.

However, we do not wish to be overly cynical about this dynamic, nor to suggest that exodus from sites of creative and intellectual exploitation is not worth the effort. Because although each intersecting or parallel ordering of the various informational regimes under the star of info-capital to some extent repeats some of the old limits and constraints, some at least hold the potential for collective experimentation and social organisation on small and large scales. The Internet plays a key role in this by aggregating voices, interlinking networks, and providing indexing and archiving spaces. Nevertheless, the need remains to create physical spaces in which teachers, learners and researchers can come together. For despite info-capitalism’s (somewhat desperate and last ditch?) promotion of expensive online learning courses and the like, it is moot whether these packaged educational experiences will ever be able to generate the excitement and energy of collective embodied intellectual endeavours unconstrained by inflated fees and managerialism. Yet again the Emperor has been caught wearing no clothes, and the hundreds of thousands of students who have been participating in the ‘anomalous wave’ protests, occupations, and teach-ins around the world perhaps are prefiguring what an alternative info-order might look like.

Ironic Note

The text above is a TNL-modded version of part of a chapter for a book entitled Disorder and the Disinformation Society: The Social Dynamics of Networks and Software by Jonathan Marshall, James Goodman, Didar Zowghi, and Francesca da Rimini. It was mainly written by me (FdR) with editorial input from JM; JG has now written a chapter intro which focuses on the managerialist turn of the university, but since I didn't write the intro, I omit it from this TNL remix. I also see the text as a companion piece to the JSTOR/US govt/Aaron Swartz narrative which I posted on TNL last year here. The Disorder & Disinfo book will be published by academic publisher, Routledge, in 2013. It will no doubt be over-priced. Maybe an e-copy will be available, who knows? Maybe it will turn up on aaaarg! And in the meantime I put this text here, at The Next Layer, where no doubt more ppl would read it than buyers of the book. As the saying goes, 'Fuck copyright, share the love'.

Thank you

Armin Medosch for creating a space for, and encouraging, this kind of writing at The Next Layer, Lisa Haskell for revitalising TNL's Drupal code, Jon Marshall for always helping to sharpen my thinking and writing, Brian Holmes for being Brian Holmes, and Glenn Mason for proofing the synopsis.


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