Do you think everyone should have free access to academic research?
Well, I don’t know if there was an entry fee for the Library of Alexandria, but given my zealotry for wanting as much information online as possible, whether academic or not, I would cheer loudly at the idea of free academic research for all. But the fact is, as with the rest of life, nothing is free. Value is always added along the chain from production to publication, and someone has to pay for that. No economy, whether ‘knowledge-based’ or not, can be run purely on the goodness of people’s hearts. Academics are, by instinct, promoters of the free and widespread dissemination of research, but I’d say we all know such dissemination can only be more or less free, not completely free of all economic or non-economic cost. Publishers, for example, play a vital role in the curation, organisation, editing, and presentation of research in a way that is appealing to the eye, easily discoverable (one hopes!), and capable of integration into the ‘workflow’ of academics (widely accepted and diverse formats, searchable, shareable, and so on).
How can we preserve a free and competitive market if all data is offered free?
Again, if ‘free’ means that there is no economic or non-economic cost, this seems impossible. Now, I love Wikipedia. It’s by no means particularly good in many humanities disciplines such as my own (philosophy, where it’s just bad), though it’s terrific in many areas of science, history, and popular culture. It’s the Library of Alexandria for the 21st century. Imagine if all academic research were ‘turned over’ to Wikipedia for publication and dissemination. Sounds tempting, but would it be free? Wikipedia relies on donations (I donate fairly regularly) as well as the hard work of many editors and curators. It looks free to most end users, yet it is anything but.
Now, Wikipedia is not for profit, as I understand it. There is clearly room for not-for-profit activities in primary academic research. (Universities themselves, after all, are generally not for profit.) Again, though, this could never be the sole mechanism for publishing, promoting, and disseminating academic research because you would not have the sort of competition that drives big innovations. A clear example is the online editing systems, such as ScholarOne Manuscripts (formerly Manuscript Central, used by Wiley), which turn journal editing into a virtually seamless and incredibly efficient activity compared to, say, twenty years ago. (As editor of Ratio, I speak from experience!) Only the good old-fashioned profit motive could have developed these amazing online systems.
So whilst I am all in favour of not-for-profit activities, and of the selfless work of academics in developing free online journals, databases, and the like, there has to be a market mix of the more free and the less free. For-profit publishers are major drivers of growth and innovation in academia, and I don’t expect them to disappear from the scene any time soon.
How do you think copyright laws affect free knowledge?
Clearly, if the world were copyright-free and no one ever had a thought that what they published could or need be protected from unauthorised use by others, then the velocity of knowledge transfer would be a lot higher!
We are, however, a long way from such a world, and I don’t see us going back there in a hurry. Copyright is simply the main way an author has of controlling how the output of their intellectual tools is used. Like patents, trademarks, and designs, copyright is a mechanism for incentivising people to produce what they are good at producing. If an author can survive on love and admiration alone, then good for them. Many academics find their modest royalty payments quite welcome, if nothing else than as material recognition of their work. In general, it’s the J K Rowlings of this world who worry about copyright violations more than lowly remunerated scholars, which is understandable. Again, as an academic I prefer knowledge to move around the world with as little friction as possible, but without incentives to set it in motion in the first place – in which copyright plays a role of varying importance depending on the author – the issue of velocity is of little importance.
What is your opinion of crowdsourcing knowledge?
Like most academics who enjoy and benefit from the online world of knowledge and scholarship, I find crowdsourcing fascinating. As an Aristotelian, I do believe in that thing called common sense, and consider it to be more common than Mark Twain supposed. There is a kind of common wisdom, perhaps buried deep in the human psyche, that can contribute to the advance – or recovery – of knowledge and understanding. In addition, the division of labour, the speed of online collaboration, and the sheer quantity of information available online, make the crowdsourcing of knowledge a tool of potentially immense power. We haven’t scratched the surface of where and how that power is best used, nor have we evaluated its full potential for misuse. But I am convinced that crowdsourcing will, over time, and with experience, contribute to major developments in human knowledge and, one can only hope, human well being.