The book of the mimicry of the living

What biomimicry needs to learn from the internet and Aaron Swartz: 2 – Academic Paywalls or “It’s no longer OK to NOT know how Academic Journals work”


Academic researchers need to start making choices now about what they are working towards. Possibly more important, and probably more difficult to answer honestly, they need to start deciding why they are working, and where their work is going.


The Journal Industry

I wrote a little about parallels between the copyright issues facing ‘mash-up’ music and those working at the concept development phase of biomimicry previously. In that article I mentioned the issue of an academic pay wall. What this means is a situation where researchers (often, though admittedly not always) funded by a public/governmental body produce papers for an entrenched system which then takes the research and locks it down behind a subscription only service, with the full protection of copyright law available to any journal that does so. Subscription fees are well outside of the reach of anything but huge academic/r&d institutions, but the incentive, temporarily, is still to publish for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. For now, put away the 18 journal tabs you’ve been stressing over, close your pdf reader, and sit down with a cup of coffee for story time…

Seriously. Scroll back, I know you skipped it. I have stats on how many people visit my site, which pages they look at, and what links they click [it’s like the blog version of SOPA]. About 10% of the people who read my site use even one or two of the links in my articles. Normally I’m not so bothered, but that video is important for the next part AND brilliant in its own right. Go back up and hit play. I can wait…

Right, just because I’m sure that won’t have worked on all of you, here’s the TL;DR (or TL;DW in this case): Normal people, and those who want to do science outside of academia (i.e. small scale application, niche research areas that aren’t supported, personal reasons) are finding it impossible to get current research, because of RIDICULOUS prices in accessing journals. The greatest irony in all this: “The journals are not producing the materials”. This is the record label parallel of academia, something that even got Courtney Love to do the maths. However, while all these sources (and many more bloggers) highlight the surface issue, they don’t do much to acknowledge why the system exists, at least from the view of the Universities, which is where the real money is coming from.

Ranking Systems

If you were a student, how do you chose which Universities to apply to/accept an offer from? A lot of factors obviously come into it, such as the covered topics of the course you’re applying to, the location of the university in the city and which city that’s in, how easy it is to get to the park from your department and how many of your favourite bands played there last term. At least that’s what I did. However, the odds are you also saw something like this . See that ‘Research Assessment’ column in the middle? Well that relates to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. “Hmmmm, that’s something I heard of vaguely Dave, but I’m not precisely sure how it works or what it is.” Well, this is where things get hilarious…



I wasn’t sure either so I googled it, and the top result was an academic paper, ‘The Research Assessment Exercise is bad for UK medicine’… locked up safe and sound behind a pay wall. SRSLY! Even more amusing, the article was asking me to pay $31.50. DOLLARS! For research on an article about how a largely American-centric system is inherently damaging a vital UK need. I would love to say I was making this up.

And so, like every student who has ever been faced with a paywall on the first try, Research Method B came into play:

Every students second best friend has this to say about the RAE system:

“The assessment process for the RAE focuses on quality of research outputs (which usually means papers published in academic journals and conference proceedings), research environment, and indicators of esteem.”

Additionally there is a small point that really needs highlighting.

“Publications by researchers on fixed term contracts are excluded from the Assessment Exercise unless those publications can be credited to a member of staff who is eligible for the RAE…Non-research active staff on permanent contracts, such as lecturers who have been responsible primarily for teaching activities, have also found themselves placed under deeper contractual pressure by their employing universities to produce research output.”

The Feedback Loop

To be clear, the system by which we are ranking universities in order to allocate government funding to research and gain students IS ITSELF:

a)      The system mandating that universities force researchers to submit research to pay wall journals, making it inaccessible to the public.

b)      The measure that prospective students and academics use to rate different Universities on an equivalent scale.

c)       The reason that Universities and their teaching staff are now less invested in their students, and more invested in their research output.

This means that for any scientist:

1)      You almost have to be employed in a university to gain access to the vast amount of current research.

2)      By being in a university you are expected to ‘donate’ your research to the journals for the prosperity of the university through attracting students and funding (and the continuation of your paycheque).

3)      That when employed in a university, the time that you are required (or even allowed) to take for students is secondary to your research output, and ironically more so when you are employed in a teaching position.

This means that for any student:

1)      You enter the university expecting to get ‘tuition’ from staff for your ‘tuition fees’, but are in fact crowd sourcing ‘journal access’, with a certificate of completion at the end, when they cut you off.

2)      The good/dedicated ones are being trained up to be the next generation in order to perpetuate the system.

This means that for the journals, as far as I can work out:



So what?

Finally, and more topically, what does this actually mean for biomimicrists, or any one looking for scientific research, but not in a university?

If we really want to start generating or applying well researched, complex designs based on current science, we either need to enter the academic system in exchange for our research being locked away, or find ways to work around/without it.

KRS-One in an interview said “College is a scam… but if you know the scam, it’s not a scam any more.”. Ways on doing that next week. We gotta’ take the power back…

For those of you still with me, please bear in mind this whole article series was at least partially inspired by Aaron Swartz. While I’m trying to keep the content academic and constructive , and not sensationalise a personal tragedy, please have a look at this list of 10 crimes that get you less prison time than Aaron Swartz faced. Even if the insanity of the system I described wasn’t enough, then maybe this will show you why at least the punishment for circumventing it needs fixing.



Author: DaveParr

Data Science, Environmental Science, Making and Music

4 thoughts on “What biomimicry needs to learn from the internet and Aaron Swartz: 2 – Academic Paywalls or “It’s no longer OK to NOT know how Academic Journals work”

  1. On teaching vs research, I’m not sure it’s the main issue, though I honestly don’t know. I know some people in research posts who get burdened down with teaching, and vice versa… it’s a fine balance, and probably goes both ways. The better the student, the more they will benefit from being taught by someone who is actually a researcher at heart, conversely the worse the student the more they will benefit from someone who cares more about teaching.

    It does seem to me that teaching for its own sake is not as highly valued as it could be. And neither teaching nor research are as highly valued as the ability to write successful grant applications. When research scientists have to spend half of their time asking for more money which will in turn pay for them to spend half of their time asking for more money, you have to wonder whether we’re really getting value for money from the system as a whole!

    On open access, things have been getting better. For a couple of years now various funding councils have mandated that research they support must be published in a form accessible to the public. Most journals also allow authors to put papers up on their own website, although the copyright remains with the journal. Overall I think print journals will die out sooner or later. The only truly valuable service they provide is in arranging peer review (which is unpaid anyway!). Open access online journals are on the rise. I’ve noticed I need to log in to paywalls etc far less often these days.

    I think it came as a shock to most academics that Aaron died over a bunch of articles on JSTOR. Especially when cynicism dictates that many of those will have been written to score REF points rather than because they were the most effective way to carry out and disseminate research.

  2. Pingback: Ecobuild Day 2: Changing work habits and new materials | The Biomimicron

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