Among the few things that set humans apart from animals, two may have had the largest impact on our growth and technological evolution. One of them is our capacity to form abstractions from our experiences and polish their accuracy by comparing these to new experiences. This allows us to predict future events and thus better adapt to ever changing and complex environments… the scientific method. The other one is our capacity to timelessly store these abstractions and experiences through language. Be it as a painting of a calf on a cave wall, or Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species, humans beings have transcended death by connecting past and future generations through art and other media.

Also unlike most other animals, human beings can relate to each other as both predator and prey. There are men and women who are able to camouflage themselves among empathetic and thoughtful humanitarians and position themselves to climb to ever-higher echelons of power. The smarter and more brutal they are, the more power they will likely enjoy accumulating. And there a few better ways to gain power over a population than to control their understanding and perception of the world. Knowledge is power.

If we can learn something from history, it is that once decentralization takes over a system, it becomes nearly impossible to backtrack. The translation of the bible, the printing press, the telephone, the internet: All of these advancements in the spread of information have lowered the barrier of access to the point where gate keepers become obsolete. Academic publishing’s high costs of access are the next frontier.

Legacy academic publishing vs. the internet.

The current academic publishing enterprise is immensely profitable. Elsevier, a Dutch firm that is the world’s biggest journal publisher, had a margin in 2012 of 38% on revenues of £2.1 billion ($3.2 billion). Springer, a German firm that is the second-biggest journal publisher, made 36% margins on sales of €875m ($1.1 billion) in 2011.

3 of these!

The cost of accessing this data can go from 5 articles for $155 USD to 100 articles for $2900 USD. The cost of purchasing an academic journal at Elsevier can easily go for $3700 USD a piece. University libraries across the globe pay millions of dollars yearly to these corporation in exchange for knowledge created by academics who themselves pay millions of dollars a year to be part of these universities.

In a world where gigabytes of information can be transferred for the price of a latte, it may seem unfathomable that any information is worth this much. So why won’t academics simply pay another third party for peer review and then release their content online or sell it on their own sites for a fraction of the cost? Well, to better understand academia’s behavior we must study their habitat…

One thing is for sure, without the Copyrights police, Elsevior’s database content would already be surfing the waves of p2p, and it would likely be downloadable from Wikipedia. We learned this the hard way with the tragedy of Aaron Swartz.

Stay tuned for part 2! Don’t want to miss it? Follow me though email!
Part 2 : Universities: another government program. An academic wiki? And decentralized autonomous reputation systems. 

Juan Galt