ISA and free knowledge – operation "Raid the Sage"

20100713_008This week the International Sociological Association (ISA) World Congress is taking place in Gothenburg. It is probably the largest conference of sociology, and right now the central parts of the city is packed with people from all over the world with little conference badges. A few of us made a little intervention at a PR-event hosted by the publisher Sage, which I’m going to discuss below. But first some background.

I personally don’t like large conferences very much, so I’m not attending the actual event. However, with almost 5000 sociologists in town, there are nice opportunities for side-events. You can easily tap into the flows of people, hotel rooms, ideas and beer; flows that in turn constitute the so called ”event economy”, which Gothenburg has made somewhat their brand name.

Central to the sociological perspective of the world is how societies are stratified into classes, how power is upheld, exerted and distributed, and how groups and cultures are shaped through norms and values. One such culture, according to the sociology of scientific knowledge, is the scientific community themselves, in this case – sociologists. They uphold their distinct culture through belonging to a certain social class, using a special language, communicating through certain channels; and they moreover enjoy a privileged status within state institutions in terms of expertise.

But, sociologists are usually politically aware of this, and have traditionally worked for the public dissemination of their knowledges, which should ideally be used for the improvement of human freedom and be accessible outside the ”Ivory Tower” of academia.

There is however one problem (there are of course many others) – The Copyright Industries™.

Scientific knowledge is locked in, protected and turned into commodities by large publishers. This is nothing special or new. However, the large publishers have taken a further step towards enslaving academics – for historical reasons they have positioned themselves as epistemic gatekeepers. It is for an academic writer a very good career move to publish with the respectable and large publishers. The very fact that it says Sage, Routledge, Semiotext(e) or University of Minnesota Press on the cover, is a sign of good authorship.

Now, how did the job of the academic community end up in the hands of corporations? Well, we all know the history of the printing press, based upon the ”mechanical lack” of the printing press. Making books was expensive, which in turn gave power to the institutions who could invest in printing presses and large volumes. This made publications exclusive of a few, et cetera.

With the Internet, this inherent lack is gone. Don’t get me wrong – I believe that printing books is a great idea if you do it right, also for academic literature. However, in the so called ”digital economies” things can go very wrong. One such example is Sage, and now it is time to return to the event yesterday.

The event

Sage’s special event was about launching a new wiki-style platform for the collaborative collection of sociological knowledge, peer-review and keeping facts up to-date. In co-operation with ISA, a non-profit academic society, they have launched Sociopedia. A great idea in many ways… but wait:

SAGE Publications hosts sociopedia.isa access which is free to ISA members − as an ISA benefit of membership − although access is password protected.

Hosting a wiki-style knowledge-base accessible solely to a certain community of sociologists (those who pay the ISA member fees), by a commercial publisher, is extremely counter-productive. First of all, not all sociologists in the world can afford the fees. Secondly, and indeed most importantly, is that even with the internet, where there is no technological reason for not letting everyone read and participate, the exclusiveness of knowledge is upheld by means of artificial protection.

Tax-payers finance most parts of sociological research. The knowledge, the data, and the studies can indeed be useful throughout the world. This is why access must be granted to everyone. Already today, libraries and subscribers are stuck with digital journals and books that are too expensive, and require library cards that costs money in most countries. Sociologists (and of course all disciplines) must take action against this locked-in behavior.

A Brazilian sociologists took the initiative of telling the sociologists what free knowledge was all about during the Sage event. By teaming up with a handful of Swedish and Mexican peers, printing flyers and making banners during an afternoon, we attended the event in order to hack it.

Sage presents Sociopedia

First we drank the free wine and ate the free food. Then we listened to what Sage were saying about Sociopedia. When the presentation was over, we called for attention, showed the banners and proposed a toast for free knowledge and open access. Then we handed out the small flyers explaining why our cause was important. We received many warm comments from the sociologists who attended the event, and as a micro-intervention, in the heart of global sociology, we did achieve to present the ”other way”; that of openness.

I think it is important that we keep presenting the path of free knowledge at all times. When publishers launch their digital future, the wine is free, but knowledge is not.

Wine and food for free, Sociopedia costs a fee


20 reaktioner till “ISA and free knowledge – operation "Raid the Sage"”

  1. Very well put, chrisk! It is also clear that moves such as sociopedia put sociology as a discipline in an even deeper crisis than it already is in.

    The domain of research of sociology – ”society” – has more and more been taken over by other disciplines, both within and without academia (corporate research divisions, free associations of internauts). Only by connecting with other knowledge producing communities can sociology stay relevant. By ”protecting” the quality of knowledge like this initiative does only furthers sociologys irrelevance to the rest of the world.

    I saw in abstracts of talks at the conference and I have experienced first hand at sociology in Lund, that sociology thinks that they need to protect the heritage of classical sociological knowledge and convince the world that it is valuable and should be revived. Instead of producing knowledge together with a world that is based on knowledge production, the want the magical stone of sociology to explain every situation.

  2. Very well done!!! I agree with the above comment, for some reason sociologists in universities always seem to think that it is more important to market Sociology™ as the only source for social thought, than to cross-pollinate traditions and make new things happen. Maybe they believe that they work in some old-fashioned entertainment business?

    And regarding the heritage of classical sociology, sure it is valuable and sure we can learn and be inspired from old farts like Weber or Tarde, but THERE IS NOTHING TO PROTECT. On the contrary, the history of sociology needs to be exposed to the whole world – then and only then might it come to use. Come on ISA, just spread the word and the insights, instead of acting like lobbyists for a dying, outdated industry.

  3. oh, one of those markets with booths and showcases and tons of flyers. shoes, arts, sociology… they’re all the same, nice meeting you. cards exchange and such. no wonder, and of course no sociological wonder. i guess there’s no such thing, it’s engineering in the end (or some crass attempt). societal bridges, cracking nicely!

    1. @rxw @mariana – welcome to my blog and thanks for the comments!

      In many ways putting information online touches at the heart of sociological imagery. How can there be valid sociological knowledge if we make things free for everyone? Wikipedia is the proof-of-concept that this works, but it seems that sociologists have misinterpreted the Mertonian norms, and instead resorted to a locked-in intelligensia. Not very Zef Side!

  4. @mariana i was so dissapointed to see that conflict just exist in the titles of the books and the theories for Sociology ™ (maybe in some panels of the congress, that i haven’t been) As we argue before.. Academia and academics need to let go their aura of ”knowledge” to actually make something and produce some real, free, open knowledge.

  5. * Jeffrey Alexander, Yale University, USA
    * Margaret Archer, University of Warwick, UK
    * Ulrich Beck, L. Maximilians University, Germany
    * Howard Becker, USA
    * Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Tel-Aviv University, Israel
    * Michael Burawoy, University of California, USA
    * Craig Calhoun, Social Science Research Council, USA
    * Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil
    * Manuel Castells, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain
    * S.N. Eisenstadt, The Hebrew University, Israel
    * Sang-Jin Han, Seoul National University, Korea
    * Hans Joas, University of Erfurt, Germany
    * Mary Kaldor, London School of Economics, UK
    * Peilin Li, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, P.R. China
    * Alberto Martinelli, Università di Milano, Italy
    * Saskia Sassen, Columbia University, USA
    * Piotr Sztompka,Jagiellonian University, Poland
    * Goran Therborn, Uppsala University, Sweden
    * Alain Touraine, CADIS-EHESS, France
    * Immanuel Wallerstein, Yale University, USA

  6. Very nice intervention! What an irony to see sociologists end up with the misconception that an effort like this would need the back-up (i.e. leeching) of an academic publishing house today.

    Another ISA recently informed me that it collaborates with Wiley to publish The International Studies Encyclopedia, described as ”the most comprehensive reference work of its kind for the fields of international studies and international relations. Arranged across 12 volumes in an A-Z format, it brings together specially commissioned, peer reviewed essays, written and edited by an international team of the world’s best scholars and teachers. … Available to purchase at the following prices: €1,899.”

  7. Does creating a wiki-website or any other electronic media not have a cost? It seems very naive to argue that just because something is online it must be freely available. Copyright is an idea that allows those who put in the effort (time and money) to create something are able to exploit and control the results of that effort. Without Copyright the incentive for creativity is much diminished. In the online world, unless you have funding from somewhere you either have to charge users a usage fee of some kind (often a subscription) or sell advertising or some other form of marketing to your users.

    As far as I can tell there is nothing stopping anyone else from creating an Open Access wiki-style sociology website. I can only speculate as to why no one else has. It may be because no one has the money to do so? Sage have invested in this product and it is only correct that the company should be able to exploit this investment. I do not see a difference between creating a web resource and selling subscriptions and creating a traditional textbook for sale in a book shop. Online publishing still has costs and without a return on investment where is the incentive to innovate?

    Unless someone can provide a reasonable alternative for where the money for an Open Access Sociopedia will come from I cannot take this argument seriously.

    1. George: Thank you for the comment!

      Hosting a wiki, or a collaborative platform, costs very little money. I host several wikis on a web host, and it costs me around €5/month (that is two beers). Of course, hosting larger sites costs more money, but a sociology encyclopedia-style wiki is close-to-free in terms of technical costs.

      On the other hand, writing articles is costly in terms of labor. However, tax-funded academics, who instead benefit largely from an ”economy of recognition” should be able to allocate such resources inside their normal duties.

      So, I am sure that in a near future, you will have the proof that a sociopedia can be built closely to the cost of zero. Stay tuned to the interwebs!

  8. George has a point:

    It is fair that Sage exploits the social scientists, and the public funding bodies that finance their research.

    While setting up the wiki might not be expensive, it does cost quite a lot to build a brand that manages to attract the most prominent sociology professors, and thus create a de facto standard.

    Moreover, in a democratic-capitalist society, sound management practices should be duly rewarded. (See what happened to the Communist countries.)


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