“The Transformation of Publishing Has Already Occurred…”

On: March 13, 2013
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About Matthew Elworthy
BA Communications graduate (University of Leeds), part-time CMS (content management system) operator, and full-time New Media & Digital Culture MA student at the University of Amsterdam.

 ‘ … what is left is the playing out of this transformation in all its complexity.’ (Murphie, 2008)


Asked this week to contribute to the debate surrounding what is at stake in the production of open knowledge, I was instantly reminded of a news article from the BBC, that demonstrated how high the stakes really are. Last year, Jack Andraka, a fifteen-year old high school student with a passion for kayaking and the FOX television show Glee, invented an advanced cancer test relying primarily on the Google search engine and free online research papers as his tools to do so. Jack’s pancreatic, ovarian & lung cancer test is 168 times faster than the current gold standard, 26,000 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive. To put those figures into perspective, the test costs roughly 3 US cents to produce, and takes just 5 minutes.


Jack Andraka won the top prize at the Intel 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair for his invention.


Not only does the 15-year old have the mental capacity to envision the potential outcomes of combining human mesothelin-specific antibodies and single walled carbon nanotubes, but he is acutely humble, and aware of the role that open knowledge played in his invention. At the end of his BBC interview, he states:

A famous quote from Newton is that, ‘I stood on the shoulder’s of giants and thats why I could see so far’ [sic]. So you’re standing on the work of others, to make more advances. So, without the Internet, none of this would have been possible.

Jack Andraka’s research into cancer is a perfect example of what is fundamentally at stake in the production of open knowledge. If a 15 year old has the capacity to develop an advanced idea such as his cancer test — the outcome of which potentially being a lung, pancreatic, and ovarian cancer survival rate of more than 50% — take a minute to ponder on the potential outcomes of all academic knowledge being open. Not only would such truly networked and freely accessible knowledge increase the potential to make connections between existing works, as was the case for Andraka, but it would also provide opportunities ‘for new voices and perspectives to enter the worldwide scholarly community’. Essentially, such openness would act as a feedback loop; by broadening the scope and reach of access to academic material, one would in turn broaden the application, expansion and addition to academia. This returns me to my opening quote and statement. Whilst I am discussing the hypothetical potential of open knowledge, in many ways (as Jack Andraka has proven), open knowledge is  here and now, dripping with reality, like the root of Roquentin(Jean-Paul Sartre)’s chestnut tree.

However, as for Roquentin, there is potential respite from the nausea caused by these changes. Once again, I find myself agreeing with the arguments laid out by Murphie, when discussing how the act of publishing has now been ‘swamped’ by a huge diversity in the means, acts and availabilities of the new forms of publishing:


Even if we want to, it is perhaps not possible to defend the traditional values or authority of the academy, the newspaper, or the art museum. It is rather time to re-evaluate the cultural values from within the more contingent and diverse contexts of contemporary social needs and processes.

(Murphie, 2008)


The ‘values’ and ‘authority’ of the traditional institution have faithfully safeguarded and nurtured the development of knowledge in years gone by, and in many ways still do. However, when tradition, value, and authority start to hinder the production, dissemination and consumption of knowledge, it is time for change. Roquentin’s battle was accepting the physical world’s indifference to man, and using this as an opportunity to build his own meaning. Traditional institutions must accept that open access, more than anything, represents an opportunity for unequivocal knowledge production and sharing, something for which they have long claimed to stand for.

Whilst re-reading the BBC’s article on Jack Andraka and his cancer drug in preparation for this article, I noticed something interesting that relates back to Murphie’s line of argument. Despite winning $75,000 at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last year for his creation, the 15 year old is still applying for a patent for his test. Whilst no expert on the ins and outs of patent law, such a decision on its surface appears to fly in the face of the 15 year old’s acknowledgement of the origins of vast aspects of his idea. Fitzpatrick, like Murphie, argues that there needs to be some fundamental changes in the basic ideologies surrounding knowledge production if we are to maintain it. However, perhaps more interesting, is that Fitzpatrick also highlights Donald Hall’s argument, that draws this responsibility down to an individual level:


… the future viability of higher education requires that we collectively reclaim the intellectual growth fostered in the academy as a public good rather than a private responsibility. This obligation comes full circle: If we ask this of our institutions and our funders, we must also ask it of ourselves.


Fitzpatrick routinely acknowledges that there are significant financial realities that must be addressed, but she also points out that this should not be the focus. Specifically, she suggests that instead we should move our focus to ‘values’. An aspect of which is addressing the academic realm of value measurement through individual achievement and prestige; a value often tied to exclusivity; quite the opposite of open knowledge. She goes on to argue that, ‘it is only in giving it away that we truly produce knowledge; it is only in escaping our self-absoption as a field and sharing our ideas with others, instead of talking among ourselves, that we can pay forward the loan that we have been so generously given’. It is this which is fundamentally at stake in the production of open knowledge. In the same way that the Gutenberg press enabled the proliferation of printed books across the globe, we are in the middle of another transformation, playing out in all of its complexity, with the potential to democratize knowledge another stage further.


Kathleen Fitzpatrick, ‘Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing 43.4 (2012): 347-362.

Andrew Murphie, ‘Ghosted Publics: The “Unacknowledged Collective” in the Contemporary Transformation of the Circulation of Ideas’, in Alessandro Ludovico and Nate Muller (eds) The Mag.Net Reader 3: Processual Publishing, Actual Gestures, OpenMute, 2008, pp. 98-110.

Manon A. Ress, ‘Open Access Publishing: From Principles to Practice’, in Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds) Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property, New York: Zone Books, 2010, pp. 475-498.


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