Control of knowledge

No, we’re not going to discuss the control and dissemination of Internet stuff on Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo and others. Roughly 99% of that material is based on consumer demand, research on something you forgot or wanted to know about — just a little, just enough. And, yes, Google and others are controlling those precis of information and access to products and your needs. And, yes, we should be concerned.

However, what is much more worrying is actual future research, investors’ and researchers’ needs and scholarly sharing. One company is quickly cornering that market — and that may mean they corner financial benefits from anyone accessing “their” information.

Hundreds of universities and research institutions have no budget to scan and turn valuable papers, reports or scholarly works into searchable, storable and electronically usable databases. Like Google did with the University of Michigan when they scanned the whole library for “free” and then controlled access to that scanning and usage of copyright (to the detriment of living authors!), a company called Elsevier has worked for a decade to corner the market in so-called academic works. A publisher of journals, they came to universities and offered free scanning of all journals. Journals are mostly scholarly papers containing essays and reports undertaken by scientists and professors. The language is professional, meaning often obtuse, and not meant for the public (although not secret in any way). Such journals are often replete with articles by Nobel scientists, historians researching obscure events, doctors studying new advances and political or diplomatic ponderings.

Elsevier became a journal publishing giant across the world. Then they systematically began acquiring scholarly-publishing/access tools like Mendeley that had previously been free for users. Then they bought Social Science Research Network, an e-library with more than 850,000 papers. Next was Pure and Bepress, which visualize research. In the end, Elsevier had it all: Institutional repositories, preprints of journal articles and analytics.

And then they upped the price of subscriptions to their controlled journals. To make matters worse — from a copyright point of view — heavy subscribers are allowed to copy and retain data and journals without paying the original copyright holders. Much more worrying is the power over knowledge this gives Elsevier. Institutions already fear having less leverage in negotiations — even if there was another provider to go to.

One company’s controlling of so much data and with so many tools that analyze pure data and information extends to evaluating professors, scientists and institutions that produce it. Alejandro Posada and George Chen, of the University of Toronto, found that “increased control of scholarly infrastructure … could further entrench publishers’ power and exacerbate the vulnerability of already marginalized researchers and institutions.” What they mean is that once Elsevier gains control of your work partially because you used them to do the research needed and then published with them, you may, in effect, be working for them. The University of California has decided that’s too big a risk and has recently dropped Elsevier. It will be interesting to see if any other major institutions follow suit.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.