An Open Analogy

There is something of a revolution occurring. Hailed as the ‘Academic Spring’, it refers to the movement of academics and publishers alike to ‘open access’ models of scholarly publication. The actual history and details of it are complex, and summarised greatly elsewhere (see below), but the gist of it revolves around the fact that academic publishers have effectively employed an immoral and financially unfeasible business model for too long, by erecting barriers (or ‘paywalls’) around taxpayer-funded research. It’s not my wish here to discuss the past, present or future of academic publishing here, but to provide an analogy that highlights just how fucked broke most current publication schemes are.

The idea for this post stemmed from a recent discussion with a couple of mates currently in the British armed forces. One works for the Intelligence Corps as a language specialist, and he told us their motto:

“Knowledge gives strength to the arm”

Manui Dat Cognitio Vires

This is a pretty cool motto, and sparked the idea of a possible analogy between the models of intelligence distribution within the armed forces, and knowledge distribution within academia, and the public domain. Here’s an attempt at (simply) describing that analogy:

In academia, information is gathered by researchers, whose salaries and grants are, for the most part, funded by the public. This information is peer-reviewed by scientists (for no expense) and formatted, typically taking an average of 12 months per article (at least in the field of Palaeontology). Information is then published online and/or as paper copies, where publishers typically charge for access, unless a standard of ‘open access’ is employed (e.g., the author pays a previously arranged fee to make the work publicly available for free). The system is slow, reliable, and inefficient.

In the army, troops and machines gather intelligence either through direct or indirect means. Information is promptly relayed through appropriate command hierarchy. Speed is critical. Command redirects filtered information to appropriate units, and the information is beneficial. The system works. It’s fast, reliable, and efficient.


If somewhere in the hierarchy of army command, someone decides to put up a barrier where subordinate ranks are required to pay for information. The system breaks down, becoming inefficient, immoral, ineffective, illogical and discordant with an ideal and faultless working system.

The system works through fast, efficient and open communication of data/information, with open ‘peer review’ provided by intelligence analysts. Almost every stage of the army intelligence system has an analogous representative in academia. The intelligence corps are the academic researchers; the command line represents institutions, libraries, and also scientists as peers and editors. ‘Publishers’ exist, as those who operate the communication machinery, but the associated paywalls are not present.

In the intelligence corps ‘model’, everyone benefits, as the system works. In the academic model, the only beneficiaries are selectively, and unnecessarily, those who can afford to obtain information, and of course the [regressive] commercial publishers.

This is by no means a detailed analysis of how two intrinsically complex systems work. The simplification serves the analogy, in that it exhibits how the paywall component of the current model forces it to be inefficient. As a scientist*, I find the idea of paywalls immoral as knowledge should be freely available to all, and also ironic that those who openly declare their target to be the distribution and access of scientific material are the ones causing the system to break down. I don’t object to a company trying to make a profit (I believe this is called ‘Business’), but there are better ways that a) don’t piss off pretty much your entire ‘work force’, and b) are logical in terms of taking a stance on increasing the global pot of knowledge. That’s a pretty noble stance to have.

“Knowledge gives strength to all”

Scientia dat vires ad omnes




*I’m starting my PhD in September this year 🙂

Additional, and recent, reading on the ‘Academic Spring’

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/01/open-free-access-academic-research?CMP=twt_gu – The Guardian

http://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/stories/2012/04/openaccess.aspx – JISC

http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1058 -Blog by Michael Eisen

http://techcrunch.com/2012/04/29/the-future-of-science/ – Article by Richard Price

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/harvard-vs-yale-open-access-publishing-edition/256468/#.T5rn8hNmPwA.twitter – The Atlantic

http://svpow.com/2012/04/20/how-elsevier-can-save-itself-part-0-introduction/ – Series of blogs by Mike Taylor

0 thoughts on “An Open Analogy

  1. Liking what I’m reading so far…

    just an edit as I go:

    “typically taking an average of 12 months ”

    you’ll find in other disciplines the turnaround is a lot quicker than that. I’d make an edit to ‘correct’ that to make it clear you’re talking about Palaeontology journals (I presume)

  2. As much as I like analogies, I find it a bit ironic that you use the army, one of the organisations that arguably has a lot to benefit from keeping information and knowledge secret from the public, to advocate an open access model. The system is fast, because it is to a great degree hierarchical: the decision of the superior is final and I would imagine rarely open to criticism. Are these bad qualities? Not necessarily. The purpose of the system is not to generate knowledge for humanity, but to work fast and efficiently if it is required to act.

    I cannot think of any other system in place where information and knowledge is being subjected to such a rigorous review and discussion, that is theoretically open (in that anyone can publish a response?) and occurs between equals. Open access and post-publication online and open review will surely improve the system heaps, but maximizing efficiency cannot be the main goal, unless people are specifically paid to write, publish and review scientific information.

    1. I guess that’s the weakness of the analogy – ultimately, scientists/researchers have a moral obligation to convey knowledge to the public. That’s why we do it, right? Progression and communication of science! But the Army is under no such obligation, and in fact relies on secrecy to some degree. So yeah, that’s where the analogy breaks down in terms of output, but I still think that the processes are somewhat comparable.

      Theoretically open, yes! But if it takes 6-12 months for a ‘formal’ response, that’s pretty inefficient. In no other domain is communication so slow due to unnecessary restrictions (this is why things like PLoS’ open comments sections is awesome!). Obviously me agree totes with all of last paragraph – I understand that money has to be spent in publication models, I just think atm it’s totally wrong. There are plenty of articles out there which describe the issues much better than I ever could 🙂

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