Keynote ~ David Parry, “Ending Knowledge Cartels”

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Review by Scott Reed

Consider the following: Pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers-Squibb sells an antiretroviral drug, like many drugs, at rates that most people who really need the drug can’t afford.  It sounds like standard-issue market capitalism on its surface: a company selling a profit at whatever price the market can afford.  The problem, though, is that this company faces no competition.  By holding the patent on the drug, Bristol Myers Squibb creates a condition of artificial scarcity.  They are ultimately, as David Parry argued in his keynote, a “knowledge cartel” because of the way they wield control over information.

The larger project of David Parry’s address “Ending Knowledge Cartels” was to extend the pharmaceutical example to the production of knowledge and discourse in the academy.  By investigating the structures and business practices of modern academic journals, Parry’s address built its way into an evocative and challenging manifesto, one that challenges scholars at all levels to build towards systematic change in the way we think about and produce knowledge in the academy.

In the first “act” of Parry’s three-act presentation, he laid out in stark factual terms the economic damage being wrought by the “knowledge cartel” structure.  At Harvard University, libraries spend $3.75 million a year on journal subscriptions, with some of those subscriptions becoming more expensive at a vertiginous rate.  (Parry cited that in some cases, journals have become 145% more costly over the last six years.)  However, as in his opening anecdote, Parry argues that these changes have nothing to do with the market.  Rather, they have everything to do with the ways that academic knowledge cartels monopolize, and therefore constrict, access.

One of the most detestable examples of this comes from the journal publisher Elsevier.  Charging (in one example) over $1700 dollars for one journal for one year, Elsevier helps to control a significant portion of the market while simultaneously enjoying a comfortable profit margin.  Furthermore, they do all of this without paying for the very content they sell, because academic journals don’t pay for theirs.  The knowledge-making work of journals is the result of work (writing, research, and editing) that we as intellectuals do for free, our little part in helping advance the “conversation of mankind.”  Parry doesn’t stop there, though; a far deeper irony rests in recognizing that many professors are public employees.  Follow the money around, and the following model emerges: the public pays taxes to universities, who in turn pay professors, who give content for free to journal publishers, who in turn sell that content back to the same universities at exorbitant prices.  The public is at a loss, here.

Parry’s second “act” considered more directly how changing copyright laws have effectively colluded with these “knowledge cartels” to limit access to knowledge.  Extending copyright protection from 7 years to 14 years to, currently, the life of the creator + 70 years allows companies – from academic journal publishers to media conglomerates like Disney and Time Warner – to prolong conditions of “artificial scarcity” in a way that he argues inherently disadvantages the public.  Part of this is an economic argument – after all, it is the public who in many cases pay professors’ salaries, and beyond those issues lays the larger concern over the emergence of what Parry calls a “tiered” university system, wherein smaller colleges who cannot afford journal access are perpetually disadvantaged.   Again, the public good is marginalized.

The bigger part of Parry’s argument, though, is ethical.  As scholars and intellectuals, we should have a vested interest in wanting information to be free.  Repeatedly throughout his address, Parry aligned intellectual work with the greater good of society and proceeded from the assumption that intellectual work should be rightfully situated in the commons.  Though practical economics are certainly a factor in the argument (our institutions are being ripped off blind by these cartels), Parry’s talk never shied away from the moral core at the center of the argument.  What’s at stake is less the bottom line than the possibility of a more vibrant and active democracy.

From those foundations, Parry’s third act laid out a clear manifesto for fighting back against knowledge cartels.  For the sake of clarity, I will reproduce his “10 Ways Forward,” with brief explanatory notes for each.

  1. Creative Commons.
    Using this notable alternative to traditional copyright builds openness from the ground up, Parry recommends that everything we produce – from scholarly works to course assignments and syllabi – be licensed this way.
  2. Publish only in Open Access journals.
    This particular comment initiated some grumbling, as our field’s Computers & Composition journal is managed by Elsevier.
  3. Don’t work for the knowledge cartels.
    Parry humorously illustrated this point by showing an email from a major journal and textbook publisher, soliciting feedback on a project.  The email suggested strongly that little work, even sloppy work, was all that was needed, and promised the rather absurd reward of an entry in a drawing for a gift card.  Such practices only serve to inflate prices further.
  4. Actively support Open Access.
    This includes both Creative Commons and projects like SPARC computer architecture.
  5. Do this regardless of rank.
    Though some may be offended by Parry’s notion that “if you don’t act bold when you’re young, you won’t when you’re old,” the larger logic is that it will require push from both the experienced faculty (who set guidelines and practices) and younger faculty to produce change.
  6. Make Open Access part of Institutional Criteria.
    Those seeking jobs should specifically ask whether Open Access publications will count towards tenure, and those serving should lobby to ensure that such publications are valued.
  7. Make choices public.
    We should trumpet our successes and also speak publicly when our universities and departments make choices that veer away from an Open Access philosophy.
  8. Extend principles to other choices.
    In other words, our attitudes towards published intellectual work should also be consistent with our attitudes towards pedagogical materials and classroom tools.
  9. Exert pressure on professional organizations.
    Organizations like CCCC and MLA (which, though certainly affiliated with and sponsored by knowledge cartels are, Parry says, salvageable) can exert pressure on the bigger system by following these guidelines.
  10. Pirate.
    In what is sure to ring as the most controversial of his suggestions, Parry argued outright that we have an ethical right to pirate content from knowledge cartels.

To all this, Parry anticipated and quickly deflected, an important counterargument.  Younger scholars needing to seize on any opportunity for jobs and publications would no doubt find themselves disadvantaged by turning down so many potential opportunities.  To the argument that these “ways forward” could cost many their tenure, Parry’s riposte was succinct:

  1. If the cost of achieving tenure is selling your soul, it’s not worth it.
  2. This is a collective action problem.  If we all move towards open access, it becomes law.

Ultimately, it is on that moral-ethical foundation that his argument rests.

While not all may agree that textbook publishers (many of whom, I’d be remiss to exclude, supported the very conference we were attending) represent a clear and present danger to our intellectual futures, the wider implications of Parry’s argument hit home for many in the audience.  It is neither anti-capitalistic nor overly idealistic to work towards a future where the tools at our disposal result in better, faster, cheaper work.  Instead, in our current state, the tools of networking and production available to us have been coopted in such a way that actively constrains the intellectual work of the university.  So while not everyone may be fully converted by Parry’s zealous argument, conversion doesn’t need to be the goal.  What truly matters is that we as a community pay attention not just to how we create knowledge in the classroom and in our research, but how that knowledge circulates afterward.

Video of David Parry’s keynote can be found at http://vimeo.com/42617072

Scott Reed is an Assistant Professor at Georgia Gwinnett College.  Both his research and teaching focus on the intersections between gaming media, rhetoric, and composition, and he has published work on those subjects in Currents in Electronic Literacy, Kairos, and in the edited collection Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture.

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