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Knowledge in the new age of piracy

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 27 February 2012

In the old days a pirate was someone who prowled the sea lanes and stole or levied the cargoes of legitimate traders. Today a new form of piracy prevails – and it applies to the thing most central to the destiny of civilisation: knowledge.

This issue was highlighted by a recent protest by over 6000 scientists around the world against the restrictive behaviour of a leading scientific publishing house. Essentially they objected to the monopolisation of their published science by big journals, their profiteering and large fees levied and the restrictions they impose on public access to the science.

At the same time a handful of corporations and IP attorneys are busy patenting discoveries made with public money, for private profit. As a recent court case in America showed, people are finding they don't even own their own genes any longer. And, in a time of climate change, two or three large companies may soon control the world's major food crops, via drought-resistance genes.


The issue is that most of the world's science – over three quarters in fact – is discovered using funding from the general public, via taxes levied by national governments, with the intention of generating public benefit. This makes the public the primary owner of the science. However that has not stopped scientific publishing houses and IP 'owners' from asserting that they have exclusive control over this new knowledge – and everyone else must pay them to see or use it.

To test the theory, try downloading an Australian scientific paper generated with public funding from the website of a major science journal. If you are not a subscriber, you will be asked to pay $30, $50 or even more for access to science which you already paid for with your taxes. The scientists who wrote the paper are asked for pay hundreds of dollars for its publication, which they will extract from their public grant money. So today's academic publisher stings the public for their own knowledge, both coming and going.

There is, however, a deeper issue at stake – it stems from an important principle described by the 18th century jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham pointed out that it was almost impossible for the public to access the law, (even to read individual Acts, judgements or cases) unless they first hired a lawyer. He argued that free access to the law was a basic liberty of every citizen – we all have a right to know the rules by which we are governed, without some middleman levying a hefty fee. The advent of the internet has since made most important legal documents freely available worldwide.

Bentham's reasoning applies equally to the issue of publicly-funded science. In my argument, this public knowledge is a basic liberty and a right – not a private good.

Historically, both the British Royal Society and Academie Francaise were founded on the principle of freely sharing scientific knowledge among humanity for the general good. This is a foundational ideal of science which is rapidly being prostituted and polluted in the great age of 'free' enterprise. Indeed it turns what should be rights be free into a privately owned and controlled product.

Today, a host of middlemen – including publishers, lawyers, and the managements of universities and research institutions – are hard at work encroaching on the public's right to science and taxing its access to new knowledge. Bluntly, this is a restraint of trade. The Open Science movement represents a nascent attempt by IT and biotech scientists to resist this negative trend.


As most scientific journals have small circulations and charge high fees, they constitute a hindrance to the free flow of publicly-funded scientific knowledge in the age of the internet. Thus, knowledge vitally needed by human society to deal with disease, climate change, poverty, safety, loss of biodiversity, contamination, hunger and so on – knowledge that can save and improve billions of lives, accelerate global economic growth and enhance sustainability – is being locked up and privately exploited. Much of it is being wasted.

Since knowledge, more than any other single element, defines the prosperity and progress of society, it follows that the more obstacles, levies and rip-offs you impose on knowledge, the less effectively it will disseminate, the fewer the benefits it will generate and the longer it will take to be applied. This is injurious to the interests of society and reduces the value of the public investment in science.

Superficially the piracy of science may appear simply a fresh case of private greed triumphing over public good, of the same ilk that gave us the global financial crisis. Most academic publishers, IP lawyers and universities will object to this characterisation, claiming that giving them private control of knowledge allows them to see it is commercialised and applied. However that is an argument rooted in vested interest and with scant supporting evidence.

It entirely ignores the alternate view: that free and widespread access to scientific knowledge via the internet will generate greater economic, social and environmental benefits, especially in poorer countries, for all of human kind and for the planet we inhabit. This was illustrated by the Green Revolution, which distributed advanced agricultural knowhow freely worldwide, laying a foundation for the modern economic miracles of China and India. Imagine too, the consequences if access to public health information was similarly restricted.

It is the contemporary 'freebooting' model of science publishing and IP management that is sick – not the act of publication itself. For the sake of humanity facing a challenging and dangerous future, it needs to change.

It is time to put the entire canon of the world's publicly-funded science and technology literature online, with open access to any person who wants it.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times and ScienceAlert.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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