Academic Spring and OA movement just a symptom, not cause of change

… a reaction to profound changes which  question the role of universities and scholars. It’s a symptom of an adaptation attempt.

The OA movement, which advances so slowly because of the resistance of the scholars (voluntarily lulled by the propaganda machine of the association between legacy publishing industry and rulers of universities), is just an opening for asking more unsettling questions:

  • is the  research article as we know it a viable vehicle of communication?
  • what is the difference between peer-reviewing articles and writing them?
  • should review be confined to scholars, or informed netizens (for example those detecting plagiarism) have their place in the review system?
  • is an article a definite piece of research, from the moment of publishing it (in whatever form, legacy or open), or it is forever an evolving project, due to contributions from a community of interested peoples, and if the latter is the case, then who is the author of it?
  • is it fair to publish an article inspired (in the moral sense, not the legal one) from information freely shared on the net, without acknowledging it, because is not in the form of an article?
  • is an article the goal of the research, as is the test the goal of studying?

Which is our place, as researchers? Are we like the scholars of medieval universities, becoming increasingly irrelevant, less and less creative, with our modern version of rhetoric and theological studies, called now problem solving and grant projects writing?

If you look at the timing of the end of the medieval universities and the flourishing of the early modern ones, there are some patterns.We see that (wiki source on early modern universities):

At the end of the Middle Ages, about 400 years after the first university was founded, there were twenty-nine universities spread throughout Europe. In the 15th century, twenty-eight new ones were created, with another eighteen added between 1500 and 1625.[33] This pace continued until by the end of the 18th century there were approximately 143 universities in Europe and Eastern Europe, with the highest concentrations in the German Empire (34), Italian countries (26), France (25), and Spain (23) – this was close to a 500% increase over the number of universities toward the end of the Middle Ages.

Compare with the global spread of the printing press. Compare with the influence of the printing press on the Italian Renaissance (read about Demetrios Chalkokondyles).

The scientific revolution is

Traditionally held to have begun in 1543, when were first printed the books De humani corporis fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius, which gave a new confidence to the role of dissection, observation, and mechanistic view of anatomy,[59] and also De Revolutionibus, by Nicolaus Copernicus. [wiki quote]

Meanwhile, medieval universities faced more and more problems, like [source]

Internal strife within the universities themselves, such as student brawling and absentee professors, acted to destabilize these institutions as well. Universities were also reluctant to give up older curricula, and the continued reliance on the works of Aristotle defied contemporary advancements in science and the arts.[36] This era was also affected by the rise of the nation-state. As universities increasingly came under state control, or formed under the auspices of the state, the faculty governance model (begun by the University of Paris) became more and more prominent. Although the older student-controlled universities still existed, they slowly started to move toward this structural organization. Control of universities still tended to be independent, although university leadership was increasingly appointed by the state.[37]

To finish with a quote from the same wiki source:

The epistemological tensions between scientists and universities were also heightened by the economic realities of research during this time, as individual scientists, associations and universities were vying for limited resources. There was also competition from the formation of new colleges funded by private benefactors and designed to provide free education to the public, or established by local governments to provide a knowledge hungry populace with an alternative to traditional universities.[53] Even when universities supported new scientific endeavors, and the university provided foundational training and authority for the research and conclusions, they could not compete with the resources available through private benefactors.[54]

So, just a symptom.


UPDATE:  Robin Osborne’s article is a perfect illustration  of the confusion which reigns in academia. The opinions of the author, like the following one [boldfaced by me]

When I propose to a research council or similar body that I will investigate a set of research questions in relation to a particular set of data, the research council decides whether those are good questions to apply to that dataset, and in the period during which I am funded by that research council, I investigate those questions, so that at the end of the research I can produce my answers.

show more than enough that today’s university is medieval university reloaded.  How can anybody decide a priori which questions will turn out to be good, a posteriori?  Where is the independence of the researcher? How is it possible to think that a research council may have any other than a mediocre glimpse into the eventual value of a line of research, based on bureaucratic past evidence? And for a reason: because research is supposed to be an exploration, a creation of a new territory, it’s not done yet at the moment of grant application. (Well, that’s something everybody knows, but nevertheless we pretend it does not matter, isn’t it sick?)  Instead, conformity reigns.  Mike Taylor spends a post on this article, exposing it’s weakness  as concerns OA.


UPDATE 2: Christopher Lee takes the view somewhat opposite to the one from this post, here:

In cultured cities, they formed clubs for the same purpose; at club meetings, particularly juicy letters might be read out in their entirety. Everything was informal (bureaucracy to-science ratio around zero), individual (each person spoke only for themselves, and made up their own mind), and direct (when Pierre wrote to Johan, or Nikolai to Karl, no one yelled “Stop! It has not yet been blessed by a Journal!”).

To use my nomenclature, it was a selected-papers network. And it worked brilliantly for hundreds of years, despite wars, plagues and severe network latency (ping times of 109 msec).

Even work we consider “modern” was conducted this way, almost to the twentieth century: for example, Darwin’s work on evolution by natural selection was “published” in 1858, by his friends arranging a reading of it at a meeting of the Linnean Society. From this point of view, it’s the current journal system that’s a historical anomaly, and a very recent one at that.


I am very curious about what Christopher Lee will tell us about solutions to  escape  wall-gardens and I wholeheartedly support the Selected Papers Net.

But in defense of my opinion that the main problem resides in the fact that actual academia is the medieval university reloaded, this  quote (taken out out context?) is an example of the survivorship bias. I think that the historical anomaly is not the dissemination of knowledge by using the most efficient technology, but sticking to old ways when revolutionary new possibilities appear. (In the past it was the journal and at that time scholars cried “Stop! it is published before being blessed by our authority!”, exactly alike scholars from today who cry against OA. Of course, we know almost nothing today about these medieval scholars which formed the majority at that time, proving again that history has a way to punish stupid choices.)

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