academia

Book publishers love that libraries can act as free marketing venues, introducing readers to new authors and keeping them focused on books.  But publishers don’t like it when libraries act as commons – that is, when they promote easy access and sharing of knowledge.  A successful commons may modestly limit a publisher’s absolute copyright control – and even minor incursions on this authority must be stoutly resisted, publishers believe.     

One of the more egregious such battles now underway is a lawsuit filed by Harvard Business School Publishing, John Wiley and the University of Chicago Press against the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.  ISCE  is a small, nonprofit membership group that “facilitates the conversation between academics and business people regarding social complexity theory, particularly the implications for the management of organizations.” 

The focus of the publishers’ lawsuit is ISCE’s virtual library of 1,200 books.  May ISCE self-digitize and lend its virtual books to its members on a one-usage-at-a-time basis, for private, educational, non-commercial purposes? 

The publishers say no, and are seeking to establish their legal authority to shut down such unauthorized “reproduction, display and distribution” of the books.  But ISCE counter-claims that the fair use and first-sale doctrines of copyright law give it the legal right to lend its virtual books.  (Fair use is the legal doctrine of copyright law that allows excerpts to be shared noncommercially.  The first-sale doctrine prohibits the seller from controlling what a consumer does with a book or DVD after it is purchased, such as renting it, lending it or giving it away.)  ISCE claims, in addition, that libraries are entitled to special-use privileges under copyright law, which apply in this instance.

The Journal of Latin American Geography has dedicated an entire issue (vol. 12, no. 1) to surveying the state of commons on that continent. The special issue (in English) consists of nine essays, the first of which provides a helpful overview of the state of Latin American commons and commons research. (A listing of abstracts here.)  This academic treatment gives some welcome visibility and depth to the study of the commons in that vast region of the world, much of which is besieged by aggressive neoliberal policies that seek to extract vast natural resources in the name of "development." 

The Journal focuses on a range of commons-related themes in various countries, including the effect of rural out-migration from Mexico on commons there; new efforts in Costa Rica to treat biodiversity as a commons; the struggle of indigenous peoples in Brazil to secure tenure rights to their communal resources; and use of commons by marginalized people in Argentina to manage wild guanacos, a large, llama-like ungulate valued for their meat, skins and fibers.

The overview essay on current trends in Latin American commons research, by James Robson and Gabriela Lichtenstein, shines a light on the development agenda of oil and mining industries while noting the many legal and political changes that have reinstated communal property regimes.  Many countries, such as Brazil, Honduras, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have formally recognized the communal rights of indigenous communities to their traditional territories.  Overall, there is a “upturn in communal land tenure over time,” write Robson and Lichtenstein. 

Harvard Joins the Open Access Revolt

The publishers of research journals don’t get much attention because their products are not very exciting.  Mentions of Science or Nature do not exactly quicken the pulse.  But that doesn’t mean that the publishers of academic journals aren’t as predatory and profiteering as any Fortune 500 bank or oil company. 

It now appears that the major universities that generate so much of the world’s research (only to buy it back from publishers at huge mark-ups) could be getting ready to fight back.  Harvard University is publicly urging its faculty members to avoid publishing in journals that require paid access, and to publish instead in open access journals.  Open access literature can be defined as works that are digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

As the Guardian (UK) reports, the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council has sent a memo to 2,100 professors and researchers informing them that “major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.”

It’s no secret that digital technologies and networks are becoming tremendously disruptive to academia by introducing new ways of doing research, publishing, teaching and collaborating with peers.  But few universities have shown much gusto for tackling this very difficult topic, let alone trying to devise some working solutions.  So USC deserves some credit for a serious and sophisticated one-day symposium on the topic in January 2011. 

Hosted by the USC Office of Research and the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the event convened a highly interdisciplinary set of participants – from engineering, social sciences, medical fields and the humanities.  The ideas was to explore some of the innovative ways that academic research is now occurring and what university administrations should do in response.  Among the questions posed at the symposium: 

  • How do you get credit toward tenure or promotion if your work as an academic is part of a vast online collaboration? 
  • How should peer review be done now that online platforms make it easy to invite talented outsiders from other disciplines, and even non-academics, to review work?   
  • With everyone staring into the computer screens, how should research institutions design real-world spaces so that people can actually have serendipitous in-person encounters and collaborations?

I served as rapporteur for that event, and now the final report has been published.  You can download a pdf copy of Creativity & Collaboration:  Technology and the Future of Research in the Academy here. 

I delivered the following remarks -- "The Marginalization of the Commons and What To Do About It" -- at the 13th Biennial conferece of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, in Hyderabad, India, on January 12, 2011.

The commons is of keen interest to me because of its great potential to transform how we talk about economics, politics, governance and culture.  Or more to the point, it can be an active, creative force for positive change in people’s lives.    

The focus of the conference today is the structural forces that are marginalizing the commons and disempowering commoners.  Why is it that the commons is so often excluded from official policy discussions about how to manage resources and improve people’s lives?  Why are the State and the Market seen as the only two serious realms of action – while the commons is often patronized or dismissed as inconsequential, if it is considered at all?  

 

Academia as a Commons:

The Promise of Digital Technologies at Amherst College and the Five Colleges

The following remarks were made by David Bollier, Croxton Lecturer at the Robert Frost Library, Amherst College, on April 26, 2010.

I am particularly pleased to be delivering these remarks in Frost Library, ground zero for my intellectual wanderlust as an Amherst student, class of 1978.  Libraries are also a deep part of my family tradition.  My father was for many years a librarian at Yale Divinity School Library, and so it pleases me to be able to do my part to support my local library. 

Allow me to make a quick introduction of myself so you can get a sense of my mission in life.  I am not an academic, although I am currently pretending to be one as the Croxton Lecturer here at Amherst College.  I’m teaching Sociology 42, a seminar called “The Rise of the Commons,” which draws upon my extensive writing and thinking about the commons.            

Buying Respectability

Imagine that you're a company that is increasingly besieged by complaints that your heavily advertised junk foods and sugary drinks are contributing to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. The First Lady has even gotten into the act, making "eating healthy" a personal priority. Naturally, the company wants to neutralize public criticisms about its unhealthy products and refurbish its corporate image.

What better way than to buy a slice of respectability and high-minded objectivity from an Ivy League school -- say, Yale University?

That’s exactly what PepsiCo did recently when it announced that it would fund a graduate fellowship in nutritional science at the Yale School of Medicine. The masters or PhD student will explore "obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome." The depressing part is, Yale was only too eager to play along and sell its name for peanuts. It will receive $250,000 over the course of five years. For this, the dean of Yale School of Medicine, Robert Alpern, praised "PepsiCo's commitment to improving health through proper nutrition" and called PepsiCo's partnership with Yale "a visionary investment in the future of science."

Academia as a Commons

David Bollier has been the Croxton Lecturer at Amherst College for the past semester, teaching a course, “The Rise of the Commons.” Below are remarks that he delivered at the Robert Frost Library on April 26, 2010.

I realize that any mention of digital technologies and copyright law can induce a certain mental stupor among many people. The topic is rife with many complicated legal and technical issues. But I believe that we commoners have too much at stake to leave copyright law to the lawyers and the Internet to the techies.

The very mission and identity of academia is implicated in the future of digital technologies, the Internet and copyright law. At stake is the ability of colleges and universities to act as inter-generational stewards of knowledge; to assure that their own scholarly output is freely accessible and usable; to curate knowledge in better ways and to disseminate it as broadly as possible; and to foster innovative research and learning.

The growing sophistication of the digital commons can be seen in its expanding political ambitions, collaboratvie innovations and stylish new forms of advocacy. Below, three examples of highly original commons-based projects that really rock.

Critical Commons is a new nonprofit advocacy coalition for “fair and critical participation in media culture.” Its self-stated goal is “to build open, informed communities around media-based teaching, learning and creativity, both inside and outside of formal educational environments.” The “tag cloud” for the site suggests the lit-crit predilections of the site’s hosts. Among the key words are “Deleuze,” “narrative structure,” “transverberation,” “ideological analysis,” “gender,” “VR “ [virtual reality”] and “TV.” [Deleuze was an influential French philosopher.]

Celebrating the Academic Commons

October 19 to 23, marked the first international Open Access Week, a time for university campuses to learn about the various ways of accessing and sharing academic research more freely.

On more than 100 campuses, students and faculty heard talks about copyright issues for instructors, open access journal publishing, graduate student publishing, finding copyright-free images, and using open educational resources in the classroom.

Last year, 120 campuses in 27 countries marked Open Access Day, which was apparently so successful that organizers decided to turn the event into a week-long teach-in and celebration.

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