Universiteit Leiden

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Knowledge as world heritage

Researchers have the whole world as their work area. Dutch researchers collaborate with Chinese, Australians give lectures in Lithuania, Koreans move to America and back. Who can contribute to academic knowledge, who benefits from it and who pays for it? A fair and effective system for this has not yet emerged.

Finding a balans

‘Knowledge is like the environment,’ says Maarja Beerkens, Assistant Professor of Public Administration. ‘It is precious heritage, which has been built up over the years and which we have to protect, share and pass on to the next generation.’ But how do you organise that? The possibility of protecting intellectual property is a motor for the economy. It encourages companies and publishers to invest in developing and distributing new knowledge. Yet on the other hand, it’s in everyone’s interest if knowledge is shared. Where does the balance lie? This is one of the questions that Beerkens studies in her work. ‘You can ask what a fair balance is from the point of view of ethics,’ she explains, ‘or you can research analytically what works out best for the common good.'

Payment wall

People increasingly feel that the balance is wrong. In a globalising economy, there is strong pressure to enforce respect of intellectual property worldwide. People therefore have to pay for academic papers. Someone in a poor part of the world usually won’t be able to afford them, and won’t always have access to a university library. So a doctor in Venezuela can be deprived of information that actually exists and could perhaps be used to cure a patient, because it’s protected behind a payment wall. This payment wall also means that many large groups around the world are excluded from the academic world. They can’t contribute anything and can’t build on existing knowledge. This is a loss for the rich countries too, as it deprives them of relevant data. The call for ‘open access’ to academic knowledge is therefore widely supported.

Scientist in Africa makes use of Open Access sources.

New optimism

Beerkens is exploring new organisation forms for managing academic knowledge, which result in fewer people being excluded. ‘One country alone can’t change the system,’ she says. ‘The interests are just too intertwined for that. We can only tackle this problem with global governance. UNESCO, the OECD and the European Commission can also see this, and they’ve taken some steps. But it’s a terribly slow process. And there are so many different parties involved: governments, universities, publishers, libraries, research funders, patent offices, international organisations… hundreds.’ Beerkens is enthusiastic about an alternative model, which is more rooted in academic practice itself. Worldwide academic communities of researchers with the same interest are crucial in the model. They could organise themselves, publish their own journals and cut the ties with commercial publishers. ‘It’s still a very new plan,’ emphasises Beerkens. ‘The way the academic world is organised at the moment is still quite chaotic. But there’s certainly a new optimism.’