The ‘Academic Spring’, and how to continue the Open Access (guerrilla) struggle

The little reported “academic spring” might move us closer to a world in which publicly funded research is not privately owned but accessible to all. But as with the ‘arab spring’, the first ‘victories’ might be little more than symbolic reforms, and the struggle should continue.

From Edward Fullbrook (Real World Economics Review, July 17):

“The Academic Spring has seen four major developments in the last 32 hours

  1. The United Kingdom government announced that by 2014 all publicly funded scientific research papers would be immediately available for anyone to read for free.  This is being called “the most radical shakeup of academic publishing since the invention of the internet“.  The payoff for society will be incalculably huge. 
  2. Research Councils UK, a coalition of the UK’s biggest research funders, has announced that henceforth it will require true open access that allows free commercial reuse.   
  3. The Higher Education Funding Council for England announced plans to require open access in all publications evaluated for the Research Evaluation Framework, i.e. to be counted towards promotion and departmental research funding.  This in the UK will have the immediate effect of achieving Harvard’s goal to “move prestige to open access” journals. 
  4. This is the biggest of all.  A few minutes ago the European Commission, which controls one of the world’s largest science budgets, backed calls for free access to all publicly funded research. “
[…] Today’s Guardian notes that “legacy subscription-based publishers like Elsevier and Wiley (and better for the public) . . . will no longer hold the monopolies they currently have” and that “On the new, level playing field, [the] sprightly electronic journals are likely to outcompete the dinosaurs.” 

However, these are reforms, no ‘open access’ revolution yet. Note: Fullbrook says that Nature says that “The EC says that it is aiming for 60% of all European publicly funded research articles to be open access by 2016.” A revolution would be getting 100% of publicly funded research available to the public for free. In fact, the EC’s goal is to have 40% of publicly funded research in private hands by 2016. What’s more, this is only their ‘aim’, no concrete law.

Let’s also remember the European Commission has been very much in favour of (and heavily subsidizing) private-public partnerships in research and is in that context very much in favour of private ownership of knowledge. This has been part of both the Lisbon Agenda of 2000 and the Europe 2020 strategy of 2010. The latter document states that it should be made more attractive for the private sector to invest in research. And we all know investors like to own what they buy.

What’s more, not long ago, in one of their recommendations to research institutions in 2007, the European Commission warned about the risks of too much ‘openness’ in a paragraph called “the balance between openness and exploitation of results” (page 21):

“[I]t should be realised that certain new products or processes (especially in the biotech or “new materials” sectors) are virtually impossible to further develop and transfer to market without intellectual property rights having been filed, which requires confidentiality to be maintained for a limited time period. This is largely due to the high proof of concept and marketing costs that certain sectors entail – and thus, unless a monopoly can be granted, commercialization becomes unattractive – meaning products which could benefit society might remain unused.”

There’s little proof the European Commission has radically changed their views on research. As the Corporate Europe Observatory published recently (July 13) “€20.3 billion within the EU’s upcoming Research program (2014-2020, called “Horizon 2020”) are about to be captured by industry”.

So, let’s not celebrate the academic spring too soon.

Aaron Swartz

But let’s remember there are various ways to continue the ‘academic spring’. Until we, the people, are given free access to all research funded by the people, ‘open access civil disobedience’ is still an option as internet activist Aaron Swartz and others have showed.  Swartz got arrested in 2011 for illegally downloading 4.8 million privately owned academic papers, but others got away with similar acts. Swartz had announced his guerrilla action in his Guerrilla ‘Open Access’ Manifesto (2008):

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. […] 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. […] 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?


  • Law professor Michael Heller explains why fragmented ownership of knowledge is a barrier to innovation and leading to a “tragedy of the anticommons”. Download/listen to the interview by EconTalk host Russ Roberts.


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