This 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.
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.
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.