It is a dizzying gamble and there are billions of euros riding on the outcome. If the wager pays off, Europe will hold its own against mighty China and the US; if not, the entire project will be regarded in hindsight as a breathtakingly indulgent folly. I refer, of course, not to the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s EU membership but to the European Commission’s announcement last week that it would be launching a €1bn plan to explore “quantum technologies”. It is the third of the commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship projects — visionary megaprojects lasting a decade or more. These are challenges too grand — and bets too risky — for a single nation to square up to on its own.
There’s a conflict, a tension, an inherent contradiction in the open access movement, and while it could be resolved, that seems increasingly unlikely.
The inconsistency goes like this: the shift to open access publishing started idealistically, with enthusiasm and pressure from the grassroots. The business model for disseminating scientific results would be changed. Instead of putting research into journals that were expensive and exclusive, we would make articles available for free. No charge at all. Ready to be downloaded by anyone with an internet connection.
Shaking in their boots
We developed more and more arguments for open access — not just solidarity with colleagues in poorer countries, but also the (im)morality of paying first for research to be done (through salaries) and then for the articles to be reviewed and edited (through volunteer work for journals) and then paying once again to be able to read them (through subscriptions). Add to this the monopolistic price gouging of the biggest publishers, whose profit rates exceed those of oil companies, and change seemed inevitable.
Wall Street analysts say open access has failed, but their analysis might help us succeed. If we dare.
Some of these arguments worked. Gradually, research councils pulled themselves over the gunwales and got onboard. Governments articulated policies. Universities gave their researchers a nudge.
The publishers started to shake in their boots. They really did. They got worried.
But then they got over it.
And this is where the other side of the inconsistency comes into play. The tension in the movement is that its idealistic and anarchistic origins are in conflict with what is needed for success, namely a clear message articulated by visible and visionary leadership.
A report this week has exposed online businesses who supply ‘research guides’ for students. Here, a writer explains what it’s like to churn out essays on demand
Students who buy essays online are being ripped off, according to a report published this week by exam regulator Ofqual. The work they purchase is written by “relatively competent writers”, but who have an “almost universal ignorance of the scope of the work” and an “utter lack of in-depth analysis”. This is completely true. I worked for two of these companies, both from home and “in-house”, which at one point saw 15 of us crammed into the boss’s attic.
Ofqual’s researchers paid up to £220 for essays, but only a fraction of that money goes to the actual writer, who can earn as little as £24 for every 1,000 words. To earn a reasonable rate, a writer needs to finish at least an essay a day. Writers quickly learn the first rule of paid essays: abandon all aspirations to quality, right now.
Despite the fees, the companies contend that they don’t produce “essays” to be handed in at all. Clients buy “research guides” to inspire their own work, in the same way that your Amsterdam souvenirs say “For Tobacco Use Only” on them. But it covers the company: if you hand in your “2:1 Guaranteed” essay and it gets a 2:2, you have already breached your contract by submitting it. There is nothing you can do.
That means for the writer, the game is to hit the word count as quickly as possible. As long as it looks like an essay, the actual words matter very little. Take every shortcut. Rephrase Wikipedia. Always give the counterpoint, no matter how weak: the words “on the other hand” are your new best friend. If you don’t have time to check citations, make them up! If the client can’t be bothered to read a book, he’s not going to check your page numbers.
Quality-checking would vary. One company hired full-time quality staff, but it’s hard to cover every subject area in every discipline, so “quality checks” were rarely more than proofreads. At another company, if you could write on one subject, this qualified you to write on anything. A law graduate would end up doing revision notes on Chinese political history, eventually writing a PhD proposal for an economics student and wondering how they got there. I once wrote a Market Research BA dissertation in two days and heard nothing more of it.
Richard Stallman estará en Valparaíso esta semana y en Santiago esta semana y la próxima, en cuatro actividades a realizarse en la Universidad de Playa Ancha, la Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional, Universidad de Chile y en el marco del Congreso InnovaTics.