The impossible development: Buying access to knowledge

Fadila Noureldin

Diego Gomez’s career as a researcher took an unprecedented turn when he was charged with violating “economic and related rights” for sharing an academic paper online. Resembling the case of Aaron Swartz, Gomez has recently been sentenced to jail for up to eight years. Gomez is a Columbian graduate student of Conservation and Wildlife Management studying in Costa Rica who needed an article but could not have access to it. The article in question was a master’s thesis that was crucial in identifying a particularly scarce amphibian species under the scope of his study, which he had been examining for several years. The article was not only central to his research but to also that of his fellow students. After finding it online, he shared it on an academic website. Subsequently, the paper’s author sued him for violating his rights. Gomez proclaimed that the article had been shared on several sites before retrieving it; but the American author was able to charge Gomez as opposed to others who had performed the same “crime” due to a reformed criminal law implemented in accordance with a trade agreement between Columbia and the United States in 2006.

“Sharing is not a crime… We are not criminals for sharing knowledge, for researching, for contributing with our efforts for the conservation of our biodiversity and the growth of science in Colombia,” Gomez wrote on his blog on the 7th of July 2014.

The fact that seminal research in his field was not adequately provided confined Gomez to saving money to periodically travel within the region to access databases, museums and biological collections he needed for studies. He also often used the Internet to fill voids of content he was not provided with in Costa Rica’s academic institutions where he worked. Gomez’s story is a case of Darwinism where knowledge is commodified and hence rendered accessible only to those who can afford access to comprehensive and high-value databases, and who accordingly can progress in their research.

Insufficient funds allocated to books and world’s major bibliographic databases are common characteristics for third world academies particularly in public universities. Egypt as a landscape of a third world country and of the co-existence of both public and private universities is no exception.

Graduates of private and rich universities are often granted free access to the world’s elite academic journals and databases such as JSTOR, Taylor and Francis and Britannica alongside many others. The American University in Cairo (AUC) is among one of the few institutions in the Arab region, which buys access rights to digital databases. However, not many academic institutions in Egypt and the region have sufficient resources to do the same for their community, which curbs the potential of research and scholarship development. Some of the largest public universities, such as Cairo University, do not provide their communities with this access. And while the Egyptian University Libraries (EUL) consortium was established in 2005 as the first consortium of academic research in Egypt that serves 12 public universities through e-resources, it is a common feature that academic institutions do not have subscriptions to important journals.

Open Access (OA) becomes the alternative for access to major journals, databases and libraries. OA contributes to widening the dissemination of research, expanding on previous work and opening windows of opportunities. This is because of its potential in removing access barriers, reducing total costs, creating global scholarly communication and dissemination and reducing barriers of participation.

As an early-career researcher, OA journals have contributed the highest value-added impact to outputs I have worked on, specifically to the course of developing the theoretical framework for my MA thesis. OA journals such as the Official Journal of Arabian Research Society for Multidisciplinary Issues, Global Economics Journal and the International Journal of Economics and Management Services have contributed to the shaping of my scholarship. Meanwhile, there are myriad incidences of inability to access crucial articles for my scope of work due to subscription fees placed on articles or login credentials requirements.

But challenges to OA are multilayered.

While advocates of OA, like the Association of Research Libraries, argue that, “increasing the exposure of scientific research through OA will maximize the public benefit,” adversaries challenge the credibility, quality, and impact of OA publications. Editorial, peer-review and technical quality of OA production is often questioned by its challengers. “To become a scholarly publisher, all you need now is a computer, a website, and the ability to create unique journal titles,” wrote Jeffrey Beall, making inferences to questionable standards of content published through OA.

But scholars have extensively probed on measuring the impact of OA journals through several indices. Of most influence are the Citation Impact Factor and the Immediacy Index, which have been used as proxies to compare impacts of OA versus non-OA academic journals. Several studies focus on testing the impact advantage of the two types, directing analyses on comparing citation counts of OA and non-OA articles in the same non-OA journals, revealing significant advantages of OA. Also, recent studies by the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) found that traditional subscription-based journals had the same citation impact factors as OA journals. BMC Medicine investigated the impact of OA on medicine-related research to address credibility and quality and found that OA journals are, “approaching the same scientific impact and quality as subscription in journals.”

The quality of the research aside, the economic factor is a dominant challenge to OA. Publishing houses not moving towards OA argue that providing free access to research outputs through several options such as the gold-open access model, which shifts financing costs from reader to writer, does not necessarily solve research and scholarship issues. For example, shifting financing costs from reader to writer creates potential disincentives for output production from knowledge producers. Yet, some argue that paying to publish in OA outlets helps popularize their knowledge outputs, which is an incentive to producers looking for further research opportunities and collaborations.

The few institutions that have worked towards the facilitation of research and scholarship, specifically in emerging and developing economies, include Bloomsbury Academic, Hindawi Publishing Corporation of the Middle East, and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Institutions dedicated to such work mainly focus on promoting information and online resources that provide open access to the public, in addition to the commercially published resources they may produce. Bloomsbury Academic, similar to IFLA, utilizes licenses such as Creative Commons and Bloomsbury Open to publish selected research publications provided online for free in HTML formats. Hindawi is fully focused on publishing OA content in 437 peer-reviewed journals of multidisciplinary fields.

Access is evidently not disjointed from development. With Research and Development (R&D) playing a central role in driving productivity and fostering competitiveness in the global world, barriers to access often lead to R&D failures particularly in the third world, and accordingly attempts by above-mentioned institutions to avail resources partially fills a crucial gap.

Existing literature has had controversial stances on the relationship between R&D and economic growth and development – in the types, methods and channels of R&D that fuel growth. However, what is undisputed is the ability of research to widen, expand and constantly develop the scope of knowledge, potentially bringing forth cutting-edge growth opportunities.

Specifically in the Middle East, World Bank statistics have shown disappointing figures pertaining to the region’s expenditure on R&D. In 2007, Japan spent 3.4% of its GDP on R&D; the United States spent 2.7% followed by 1.8% in the United Kingdom. By contrast, the Middle East and North Africa’s expenditure in R&D were placed well below the world average of 1%, with Egypt spending 0.2% in 2007, Kuwait 0.1%, and Saudi Arabia decreasing its expenditure from 0.1% in 2004 to 0.0% in 2007. Why are these figures so low? A contributing factor may be how these governments set their budgetary priorities; but of equal importance, is the scarcity of research and scholarship in the region hampered by critical access to the means that make research possible.

The reason for this curbed development opportunity through hampered access lies in a broader malfunctioning management of the world’s most basic resource – knowledge.

Knowledge is identified as a global public good due to its non-rivalry and non-excludability attributes. Theoretically, one individual’s consumption of knowledge does not discount other agents’ consumption of it. Yet, the malfunctioning management of knowledge has shifted its nature to become closer to private good characteristics due to potential excludability. Because of possible appropriation of returns to knowledge by its producers, in his paper Knowledge as a Global Public Good, economist Joseph Stiglitz often refers to knowledge as an “impure” public good. He illustrates such appropriation by depicting the metallurgy industry, where firms in the industry commonly use trade secrets, limiting other competitors’ knowledge of the combination mixtures and alloys utilized for production. Stiglitz intently notes that as part of the patent process, inventors must disclose details of their production process.

Other than producer appropriating knowledge dissemination, knowledge is regularly commodified as it is turned into products sold in the market. With pricing mechanisms applied, supply and demand dynamics are enforced upon knowledge production. Knowledge production becomes a dependent function of market forces, where production is based on what will most likely sell more versus what is actually needed. This incorporates the false notion of scarcity by treating knowledge as a good that erodes with increased consumption, when this is not the case.

An outcome of commercializing knowledge as a commodity of applicable scarcity is the criminalization of knowledge sharing, through rigid copyright legislations, causing Aaron Swartz’s tragic windup and Gomez’s faltering fortune. The resulting manifestation is a conditional type of knowledge sharing; contingent upon upholding “economic and related rights” of knowledge producers and distributors. As the Internet’s Own Boy puts it,

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”

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