Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Academia: The Internet, You're Doing It Wrong.

There was an interesting article on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, concerning the way peer-reviewed research journals such as Science and Nature charge British Universities hundreds of millions of pounds each year for access to the scientific research they publish on academics' behalves. In many cases, in a bizarre reversal of the normal economics of the process of publication, these journals also both charge the publishers of the research themselves for the act of publishing, and require those authors to sign away copyright to the journals involved so the originators of the work can't even reproduce their own articles elsewhere (hence the fees – to the publisher, not to the author - when other academics later want to see what's been written by their peers).

The wider piece centred around a new website that's about to be launched, called eLife. The project is being championed by Sir Mark Walport, the director of the Wellcome Trust, and aims to provide a free, centralised place for research to be published instead.

The whole piece got me thinking about how Universities, and for that matter most publicly-funded bodies, don't seem to use information technology at all well, most particularly the web. The apparent benefits of peer-reviewed publications, at least in the eyes of those academics that choose to publish their work through them, is that they allow other academics in their fields an easy way to find and review their research. This apparently enables them to collaborate better and promotes further scientific development. Because, you know, unless publications like Nature et al existed, academic research would be otherwise impossible to publicise, find and share. 

If only there were an effective way to search the internet using some sort of tool – kind of like an engine for searching, if you will – that could enable academics to allow their work to be discovered that way instead? And wouldn't it also be nice if there were some existing, free, centralised, widely-respected encyclopaedia of knowledge, that was editable by anyone, and that was well-indexed by these 'search engines'. In an ideal world we could even make that online encyclopaedia itself searchable in its own right. In such a technological Nirvana, academics of all flavours could easily just publish their own original research on their own blogs, within their own institutions' websites, whenever they liked for little to no cost, retain the copyright themselves, then provide an entry in that centralised encyclopaedia of knowledge containing links to their own independently-published research. That way anyone, including other academics, could then subsequently easily find and develop their ideas.

But no, I can't see us having that sort of technology until at least the next millennium, so I guess Universities will just have to keep handing over millions of their tuition fees and state research funding money to journals that provide a shadow of the above service for a fee instead. And who then also charge anyone that wants to read it too.