Content produced by academics

Via Unlocking IP comes a suggestion that the iTunes U feature (videos of university lectures, essentially) is going to be a lock-in deal where if you put your academic content on iTunes U you forgo the right to charge anything yourself for it, and thus probably forgo the right to do truly free licencing of it. (Releasing something under a licence that restricts use to non-commercial only — common in academia and on Flickr — is not really free in the sense I’m using the word.)

This sounds like another round of a very annoying saga in academia, it has its equivalent in publishing, which goes something like this. Academic articles are:

  • written by academics on their salary, stipend, wage or whatever;
  • reviewed and judged by reviewers and editors almost always donating their time (or rather, working on paid time but foregoing some of their paid research hours to judge other people’s research);
  • published (typeset, copyedited and printed) by, increasingly, for profit specialist academic publishers; and
  • bought by universities for large subscription fees back from those publishers.

This is generally considered quite a tidy little deal for the publishers, who are getting the universities to buy back their own product in a somewhat value-added form at a rate often thought to well exceed the additional value. (Incidentally, I personally am part of the additional value in a sense. I work one day a week for Macquarie University paid by money from the Association for Computational Linguistics in order to do most of the grunt work of coordinating the review process for Computational Linguistics. My job title is editorial assistant. In this case the reviewing work isn’t all donated: although the editor himself is a volunteer, I am not.)

Some movement in academia is trying to claw this back, particularly the advent of Open Access, whereby a journal is published (usually in electronic form only) and does not require a paid subscription to read it. Computer scientists are ahead of the curve, if informally: throwing PDFs up on their webpages, having OA conference proceedings. I was shocked when I went to a ‘graduate experience’ feedback meeting and someone in an experimental science was held up in their work due to not having a journal subscription, in CS we’d head over to the author’s website and download their preprint and work from that.

But just as we start to get it back apparently video lectures are becoming the new model where universities produce content for someone else to sell. I’m fairly firmly of the school where the value of universities is in producing public knowledge (this is quite controversial now: many universities and governments see universities as a sort of a behemoth commercial intellectual property production shop), and this is not the right way to go about doing that. Dear universities: don’t sell exclusive licences.