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Knowledge Capitalism and the “Academic Spring“

(Photo: Ivana Vasilj)

I’ll burn my books! Ah, Mephistophilis. -Faustus (Christopher Marlowe, “The Tragicall History of D. Faustus.”)(1)

Nothing is more contrary to the progress of knowledge than mystery…. If it happens that an invention favorable to the progress of the arts and sciences comes to my knowledge, I burn to divulge it; that is my mania. Born communicative as much as it is possible for a man to be, it is too bad that I was not born more inventive; I would have told my ideas to the first comer. Had I but one secret for all my stock in trade, it seems to me that if the general good should require the publication of it, I should prefer to die honestly on a street corner, my back against a post, than let my fellow men suffer. -Denis Diderot(2)

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It is only since the 1960s with the development of research evaluation and increasing sophistication of bibliometrics that it has been possible to map the emerging economy of global science and knowledge, at least on a comparative national and continental basis. The Science Citation Index provides bibliographic and citational information from 3,700 of the world’s scientific and technical journals covering over one hundred disciplines.(3) The expanded index available in an online version covers more than 5,800 journals. Comparable “products” in the social sciences (SSCI) and humanities (A&HCI) cover, respectively, bibliographic information from 1,700 journals in fifty disciplines and 1,130 journals. Additionally, the Web of Science covers more than 5,800 scientific journals.(4)

Thomson’s “scientific products” provide “a total information solution is one that enables users to effortlessly navigate between essential research information sources including … Web of Knowledge … full-text documents hosted by primary publishers, a growing list of key databases and other options such as online public access catalogs.” (Emphasis added.)

Michael Mabe (2009: 3) wrote:

There are approximately 25,000 active, peer-reviewed learned journals publishing about 1.5 million articles each year. About one million unique authors publish annually for a global audience of roughly 10-15 million readers located in more than 10,000 institutions.

He documents the annual growth of the number of journals at 3.5 percent, which he maintained has been consistent now over the last couple of hundred years, and he estimated that in 2007/8 there were in the order of 1.5 billion downloads of scholarly journal articles at an average cost of one or two euros per download. He went on the claim “the electronic revolution has allowed more knowledge to be available to more people than at any previous point in the history of mankind.”(5)

Today, Dr. Faustus could have sold the Web of Knowledge to Mephistophilis to save his soul.(6) The theme of forbidden knowledge in the Renaissance and that of knowledge and power as corrupting forces of our divine nature sits uneasily with Denis Diderot’s Enlightenment vision of the democratization of knowledge. Diderot was – with Jean Le Rond d’Alembert – the chief editor of “L’Encyclopédie,” which was published between 1751 and 1772 in 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of engravings, representing perhaps one of the greatest achievements of learning of the Enlightenment. The “Encyclopédie” outlined the then-present state of knowledge about the sciences, arts and crafts, and was explicitly designed to make the knowledge possessed by the few accessible to the many. Most of the 71,818 articles in the “Encyclopédie” were written by Diderot and d’Alembert, but also included were prominent thinkers of the day, including Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Baron d’Holbach, Necker, Turgot and Buffon. The notion of the encyclopedia, originally from a Greek word meaning literally “a general education,” represents the attempt to collect all of the world’s knowledge in a single system and arguably dates from the 37 volume work, Pliny’s “Naturalis Historia” in the first century CE. Many other attempts at this total knowledge system followed: Cassiodorus’ “Institutiones” (560 CE), the first Catholic encyclopedia that inspired St Isidore of Seville’s “Etymologiae” (636); Bartholomeus de Glanvilla’s “De proprietatibus rebus” (1240), probably the most widely read encyclopedia in the Middle Ages; Abu Bakr al-Razi’s encyclopedia of science; Al-Kindi’s (801-873) corpus of over 250 works in music, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, mathematics and geography; the Yongle encyclopedia of the Ming dynasty consisting of 11,000 handwritten volumes completed in 1408.(7)

Read more: The Public Intellectual Project

The history of encyclopedic knowledge indicates something about the organization of knowledge, the history of science and technology, the development of library science and information and the place of reference works. Imbued with a conscious ideology or philosophy, invariably the encyclopedia was tied to new approaches to knowledge and access to knowledge involving its democratization. Diderot’s aim, for instance, was to “change the common way of thinking” through the expansion of knowledge and the development of critical modes of thought.(8) Diderot’s achievement inextricably ties an attempt at creating a comprehensive system of knowledge for humanity in the widest sense. It combines an early humanist impulse to improve the condition of human beings explicitly with the notion of democracy and access to knowledge in what we might call a republic of science.

With the advent of the “knowledge economy” based upon the manipulation and analysis of symbols and the development of language-based methodologies and technologies, a new knowledge infrastructure and information ecology is emerging that places a strong value on interconnectivity, interoperability and continuous access to linked databases accessing the entire range of newly created written or propositional knowledge in journals and books. Yet, we are still at an early stage of this kind of interconnected and public infrastructural development, even though the political inspiration and philosophical basis of open knowledge production has remained unchanged.

Today, in the face of knowledge capitalism, there is a movement nestled in the convergences of open source and open access referred to as the “Academic Spring” that refocuses the Enlightenment dream of universal access to knowledge and revitalizes architectures of open knowledge production as vital public institutions funded by taxes and freely available to all. It is a story that has picked up steam on both sides of the Atlantic with The Guardian UK championing open access and free science:

governments and charities fund research; academics do the work, write and illustrate the papers, peer-review and edit each others’ manuscripts; then they sign copyright over to profiteering corporations who put it behind paywalls and sell research back to the public who funded it and the researchers who created it. In doing so, these corporations make grotesque profits of 32%-42% of revenue – far more than, say, Apple’s 24% or Penguin Books’ 10%.[9]

On the 12 April this year, The Guardian UK carried a story about Tom Gowers, a distinguished mathematician at Cambridge University who complained bitterly about the rising costs of journals. In his Gower’s Blog,(10) he criticized the Dutch publisher Elsevier, which publishes many of the world’s best-known mathematics journals for its business practices – high journal costs, “bundling,” ruthless and cutthroat negotiation – and its opposition to open access. Within a day, a web site, The Cost of Knowledge, had been set up to boycott Elsevier:


This is an attempt to describe some of the background to the current boycott of Elsevier by many mathematicians (and other academics) and to present some of the issues that confront the boycott movement. Although the movement is anything but monolithic, we believe that the points we make here will resonate with many of the signatories to the boycott.

In 2004, the world of academic publishing was dominated by twelve publishing corporations either European or North American-owned with combined annual sales of approximately $65 billion, and employing in the order of 250,000 employees. Mary H. Munroe provided a web site entitled “The Academic Publishing Industry: A story of merger and acquisition”(11) that gave a brief Introduction and bibliography as well as profiles, timelines and the list of imprints for each corporation. These largely European (five British, three German, one Netherlands) and North American (two US, one Canadian) corporations were established first as book sellers in the nineteenth century, although a few go back even earlier, with close historical links to the beginning of the publishing and printing industries. As Munroe noted:

They are not new companies. The oldest company in the group is Taylor & Francis, founded in 1797 and only Thomson was founded after 1900. Most started as booksellers or printers, but there was a hat maker, a building contractor and a radio station owner among them.

Munroe documented the fact that “founders were all single owners or partners and most of the firms were, until recently, owned and managed by family members. Almost all of them still have family members on the board or in the hierarchy of the company.” She went on to indicate that now most companies have professional CEOs and that, since WWII, companies have undertaken serious redevelopment trying to find a steady and profitable niche market for their products, a fact revealed in the story of mergers and acquisitions. The twelve major corporations are given in the table below:

Twelve Academic Publishing Companies (2004)

  • Blackwell (4.5b, 18,393)
  • Bertelsmann (23.2b, 76,226)
  • Candover & Cinven (E8.4b)
  • John Wiley & Sons (974m, 3,300)
  • McGraw-Hill (5.25, 17,000)
  • Pearson (7.5m, 33,389)
  • Reed Elsevier (9.3b, 35,100)
  • Springer (16m, 90)
  • Taylor & Francis, (971m, 4,000)
  • Thomson (8.1b, 39,550)
  • Wolter Kluwer (4.5b, 607)
  • Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH (DM423m, 12,500)

(All figures are based on 2004 data for sales and number of employees, given in brackets. All sales are dollar amounts unless otherwise specified.)

Since Munroe’s investigation, the story of mergers and acquisitions has continued with further concentration of ownership of academic publishing. In May 2003, Cinven and Candover, leading European buyout specialists, acquired BertelsmannSpringer, one of the world’s leading academic publishers, for a consideration of €1.05 billion, from parent company Bertelsmann AG. Candover and Cinven also merged BertelsmannSpringer with Kluwer Academic Publishers (KAP), another leading international publisher, acquired for €600 million from Wolters Kluwer in January 2003, to create the second-largest STM (Science, Technology, Medicine) publisher in the world, with total combined revenues of about €880 million and EBITDA of €155 million in the period ended 31 December 2002. This effectively reduced the number of academic publishing companies to ten. In 2006, John Wiley acquired Blackwell for a price of £572 million (US$1.08 billion), continuing the trend toward consolidation in the publishing industry. The newly merged organization will publish approximately 1,250 scholarly peer-reviewed journals (over one million pages) and an extensive collection of books with global appeal across the range of sciences, technology, medicine and health, social sciences and humanities. The largest five players (Reed Elsevier, Thomson, Wolters Kluwer, Springer and Wiley) now account for over half (52.3 percent) of total market revenues, with a larger share expected next year.

Clearly, since Munroe’s analysis, there has been increasingly rationalization in the academic publishing industry, and in 2007, there were only nine companies with accordingly greater economies of scale. It is also worth noting, as Munroe stated, that up until very recently most companies had strong historical roots to book selling and/or publishing going back at least to the nineteenth century and some even earlier. It appears that this trend has now been broken with the recent Cinven and Candover acquisitions.

George Monbiot, for The Guardian UK, wrote:

Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.[12]

He continued:

Open-access publishing, despite its promise and some excellent resources such as the Public Library of Science and the physics database, has failed to displace the monopolists. In 1998 the Economist, surveying the opportunities offered by electronic publishing, predicted that “the days of 40 percent profit margins may soon be as dead as Robert Maxwell.” But in 2010 Elsevier’s operating profit margins were the same (36 percent) as they were in 1998.

There are some hopeful signs. On its web site, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted the following open-access policy:

The (1) ensures that the public has access to the published results of NIH funded research. It requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication.[13]

A petition to the White House that has gained 18,414 signatures at the time of this writing (28 May) and needs another 6,586 to reach the required 25,000 asks for free access for all journal articles funded by taxation:

Require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.

We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research and education. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research.

The highly successful Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health proves that this can be done without disrupting the research process and we urge President Obama to act now to implement open access policies for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.[14]

The call is supported by many other similar initiatives that have the same focus. The Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest biomedical charities, announced that it will launch its own free online publication to compete with subscription-based journals and enable scientists to make their research findings freely available. Sir Mark Walport said the paradox was that peer review was one of the biggest costs of publishing papers: scientists do it for free and then the fruits of their review work are “locked behind a paywall.”(15) The European Commission (EC) is drawing up a proposal to open up access to the results of research funded under its proposed €85 billion (US$111 billion) Horizon 2020 research program. Neelie Kroes, vice president of the EC, responsible for the digital agenda for Europe, suggested, “there is no reason why subscription access only models should remain dominant for access to research publications in an era when distribution costs approach zero.”(16)

Open publishing and open access seem also to suggest political transparency; an ethic of participation; collaboration through social media and the norms of open inquiry; indeed, even democracy itself as the basis of the logic of inquiry, the creation of value and the dissemination of its results (Peters & Roberts, 2012).

In the age of knowledge capitalism, we can expect governments in the West to further ease themselves out of the public provision of education as they begin in earnest to privatize the means of knowledge production and experiment with new ways of designing and promoting a permeable interface between knowledge businesses and public education at all levels (Peters, 2009). In the last decade, educationalists have witnessed the effects of the Hayekian revolution in the economics of knowledge and information; we have experienced the attack on “big government” and reductions of state provision, funding and regulation. In the age of knowledge capitalism, the next great struggle after the “culture wars” of the 1990s will be the “education wars,” a struggle not only over the meaning and value of knowledge both internationally and locally, but also over the means of knowledge production.


King, D. A. (2004) “The scientific impact of nations: What different countries get for their research spending,” Nature, 430, 15 July: 311-316.

Mabe, Michael A. (2009) “Scholarly Publishing’. European Review, 17: 3-22.

Peters, M.A. (2009) “Education, Creativity and the Economy of Passions: New Forms of Educational Capitalism,” Thesis Eleven, 96: 40-63.

Peters, M.A. and Roberts, P. (2012) “The Virtues of Openness: Education, Science and Scholarship in a Digital Age,” Boulder, Paradigm Publishers.


1. I refer to this one line from Marlowe’s play accessed through the beautiful electronic text and complete works of Marlowe in electronic format edited by Hilary Benda with support of the Perseus Project, a digital library for the study of ancient Greece and Rome and Renaissance England located at Tufts University. The final lines of Faustus’ speech are among the most moving in the English language: O lente, lente, currite noctis equi: The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike./The devil will come and Faustus must be damned./O, I’ll leap up to my God: who pulls me down?/See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament;/One drop would save my soule, half a drop, ah, my Christ!

2. As quoted by Jean Starobinski in “The Man Who Told Secrets,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. XX, No. 4, March 22, 1973, pp. 18-21 and available online.

3. The SCI is owned by Thomson Scientific and together with SSCI, A&HCI and the Web of Science can be found at or through this link. Thomson Scientific is part of the Thomson Corporation that advertises itself as “a leading global provider of integrated information-based solutions to business and professional customers.” It is one of the new leading information utility corporations with some $8.5 billion in revenues from legal & regulatory, learning, financial and scientific and healthcare global market groups. Beginning in newspapers in Canada in the 1930s Thomson expanded rapidly into TV in the 1950s, magazines and books in the 1960s, as well as travel, oil & gas, specialized information services, textbooks and technical books, legal publishing and market data systems in subsequent decades, acquiring the Institute for Scientific Information (which was established by Eugene Garfield in 1958 in Philadelphia) in 1992. During the 1990s and 2000s Thomson acquired 30 major information-related companies.

4. The Web of Science “provides seamless access to current and retrospective multidisciplinary information from approximately 8,700 of the most prestigious, high impact research journals in the world. Web of Science also provides a unique search method, cited reference searching.” The new initiative from Thomson called Century of Science, launched in 2005, extended back files to 1900 and added 850,000 fully indexed journal articles to Web of Science, from 262 scientific journals published in the first half of the twentieth century.

5. The emerging political economy of global science is a factor influencing development of national systems of innovation and economic, social and cultural development, with the rise of multinational actors and a new mix of corporate, private/public and community involvement that requires careful scrutiny. An analysis of the output and outcomes from research investment over the past decade, to measure the quality of research on national scales and to set it in an international context, reveals the complete unevenness of world distribution of science and ascendancy of a group of 31 countries that accounted for “more than 98 percent of the world’s highly cited papers, defined by Thomson ISI as the most cited 1 percent by field and year of publication. The world’s remaining 162 countries contributed less than 2 percent in total” (King 2004: 311). His analysis reveals the overwhelming dominance of the United States, whose share has declined recently, United Kingdom and Germany and the fact that “The nations with the most citations are pulling away from the rest of the world” (p. 311). He elaborates:

The countries occupying the top eight places in the science citation rank order

… produced about 84.5 percent of the top 1 percent most cited publications between 1993

and 2001. The next nine countries produced 13 percent and the final group share

2.5 percent. There is a stark disparity between the first and second divisions in the scientific impact of nations. Moreover, although my analysis includes only 31 of the world’s 193 countries, these produce 97.5 percent of the world’s most cited papers (p. 314).

6. The play trades on the theme of knowledge in its relation to sin, redemption and damnation at the heart of Christianity’s understanding of the world and also the conflict between medieval and renaissance values, knowledge and power as corrupting forces, magic and the supernatural and the divided nature of man. The story of Faustus exemplifies the new spirit of inquiry that characterizes Renaissance science and the intellectual ambition for ultimate knowledge and the power it brings against a specifically Christian ideology that warns about the dangers of seeking forbidden knowledge.

7. The term itself is allegedly based on a misreading of texts by Pliny and Quintillian by fifteenth century humanists who combined the two Greek words enkuklios paideia into one word.

8. See the marvelous web site The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert: Collaborative Translation Project at the University of Michigan, which has both search and browse functions.

9. See here.

10. See here.

11. Mary H. Munroe is associate dean for collections and technical services and associate professor at Northern Illinois University Libraries. Her web site is prepared for the Association of Research Universities and the Information Access Alliance. The site was last updated at 9/30/2005.

12. See here.

13. See here. The US Research Works Act aims to make it illegal to require researchers to make their work publicly available.

14. See here.

15. See the open-access policy. In partnership with the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) the Wellcome Trust is joining forces to digitize the complete back files of medical journals.

16. See here.

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