Month: February 2015

On the commodification of ideas and the Great Knowledge Swindle

Sometimes academia really is very trying.

I have the great privilege of having had a clinical training as well as a research training. Unlike a lot of people in my line of work, I enjoy both elements tremendously. I’m interested in people and the things that can lead to life taking unexpected turns, but I also love science. I love having an idea or thinking of a question and trying to find a way to make that idea happen, or have that question answered. It has always been a mystery to me that so few clinical psychologists enjoy research; that so many endure it only because they have to in order to be able to qualify as psychologists with the express intention to abandon the whole thing as soon as they possibly can. Be under no illusion – research is frustrating and time-consuming and SLOW: recently, I sent a paper based on my MSc research to my co-authors. This paper had been ‘in preparation’ for three and a half years. Granted, I was trying to write it whilst engaged in a doctoral degree; my supervisor was trying to finish her own thesis. But now we have the comments of the co-authors and then the six-month wait for comments from reviews once we submit and then if we’re lucky another few months until publication. Contrast this to writing for the press – three-hour deadlines and boom! – instant gratification. It won’t take great leaps of imagination to understand why journalism is so refreshing.

All that palaver notwithstanding, I really do enjoy research. I like thinking about methodology and number-crunching; I love writing and, obviously, I rather enjoy seeing my name in print; testament to the months of work and thought put into a 5000-word piece. And research is important – it guides our clinical work but it also represents the genesis and evolution of ideas, and there is little that is as important as ideas. All progress is rooted in ideas; all knowledge ultimately emanates from creativity.

So why is knowledge so wretchedly difficult to access?

This is how research works, in general: I have an idea. Think of a way to research that idea. I need money to fund it. I apply to a grant-making council, which is almost certainly funded by taxpayers’ money. They give me money, I do the research, I write it up and send it off to a journal who then publishes it. But here’s the sting: no one can read it. At least, not without paying the most enormous charges. Universities and NHS Trusts 9and industry, sometimes) pay fortunes (not small fortunes – just fortunes) to private publishers, who get this work for free, for the right to read research paid for the public at large. Institutions easily pay hundreds of thousands per year for access to these papers and the publishers, knowing they have a captive market, can virtually name their fee and their terms. So the public pays twice; once to fund it and once so that a few academics and students can read it. But the rest of you? Forget it. You’re only allowed to read it if you a) pay per paper (often about £30) or b) find someone with access who will give you a PDF. Amongst people in my line of work it’s common to find people begging for articles. I’m lucky in that I have access to an extensive repository of papers, though that access won’t last forever. But even so, I can’t always get what I need.

Presently I am revising a paper on neurological disorders; a paper I wrote ‘for fun’ (stop laughing) when working in stroke last year. I need a paper which, by hook or by crook, I have been resoundingly unable to access. This is an important paper and my own will have a bit of a hole in it if I can’t read it. So I tried everything from the British Library to online repositories, but to no avail.

Ordinarily I would huff and puff for a bit and then get over it. But this comes on the back of my seeing several conferences I would dearly love to go to, only to balk at the costs. A conference on neurology (hugely related to the paper I am writing): £400. A conference on psychotrauma: £300. A conference on forensic psychology: £250. Forget transport, accommodation and eating – this is how much it costs to sit in a big room and watch someone read some slides. But, actually, my professional registration is dependent to some degree on me spending vast sums on sitting in big rooms watching someone read some slides. And it is my privilege to have to pay for it.

These conference organisers are no different to publishers. Academics generally build reputations on public funding and they rarely get paid fabulous sums to speak for an hour to delegates. It’s the organisations which make a fortune. And actually, they don’t have to. I went to a Public Health England conference yesterday. Fifteen workshops and several plenaries; people who have real expertise in their fields. It was excellent and it was free. I’m part of a team organising a conference this summer in London. Nine terrific speakers and lunch thrown in; all for twenty quid. You know what the difference is? We’re not out to profiteer from ideas and eminence. True democracy is the democratisation of knowledge. But we don’t have that kind of democratisation. What we have, dear reader, is nothing more than a swizz of the most scandalous proportions. And, because we value learning and scientific progress, we hold the system up. We pay the fees and, in consequence, we remain a captive market.

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