July 20, 2010

On sociopedia.isa's hack: how bad are publishing houses?

Follow-up to Göteborg & the remains of the Swedish model from Around Europe 2010-12

On the evening of the 13th of July I was, as from the blog entry, at Eddie Webster's reception and therefore not at the concomitant reception for the inauguration of sociopedia.isa, the on-line sociological encyclopedia. That reception was disrupted by a protest against publisher SAGE and the fact that sociopedia, an initiative of the International Sociological Association, will not be free for all, as sociological knowledge arguably should. The protest is described and explained in other blogs, e.g. by a Gothenburg's doctoral researcher.

Now, it happens that I like protests, don't particularly like publishers, but I am also the author of a sociopedia entry, who signed off the copyright to SAGE, and even a member of its editorial board. So I have a duty to explain what I think about it.

I was invited to join sociopedia, still an underground clandestine idea, by Michel Wieviorka (ISA president) in a private conversation in September 2007 in Zielona Gora, Poland, at the margins of the Polish Sociological Congress. I liked the idea of something in the wide gulf between wikipedia and a paper encyclopedia (a gulf where students tend to get lost) and accepted. The proposal had to be kept secret until confirmed that viable, in order to avoid burning it, and the aim was inaugurating at Gothenburg 2010. The idea proceeded quite slowly, as one can imagine given the size of the undertaking: we academics take years to write little articles, how can we write an encyclopedia in a few months? I can imagine that the technical difficulties pushed the ISA, towards the end, to turn to SAGE (who already publishes the ISA journal's Current Sociology) for help. Eventually the 13th July deadline was met, but with just 18 entries (the target was 50), including mine.

There is no doubt that this is a collective failure: ISA, who does not need SAGE for recognition, has not managed the job on time with its own resources. Michel Wieviorka, the promoter of the thing, did not attend the reception himself so I can only deduct that he was not so enthusiastic himself. But I have also to admit that if I had been asked to do the editing job SAGE did, I would not have done it. I don't have the time to edit this blog, imagine sociopedia entries. Editorial work is something that, within division of labour, we have grown used to leave to private companies. So if we criticise sociopedia for being restricted-access, then we should do the same for Current Sociology, or Work, Employment and Society (also a SAGE journal, of which I am on the editorial board but I have never seen protests that it isn't for free - although I heard complaints on specific publisher's policies), or any other journal, given that nowadays the print copies are rather redundant and we could do it all for free on the internet.

In the specific case, the protest is therefore a little unfair: not just sociopedia, but most academic publications come from public bodies but are 'sold out' to the devil publishers. Yet the broader issue it raised, about copyright and commodification of (publicly-funded) knowledge in the internet era is a real one. So any attempt at opening spaces for decommodified knowledge is welcome, even if we can't burn publishers down (yet). Some little heroes are already starting the work of free-access on-line journals - and let me mention as example, again, Eddie Webster thanks to his new Global Labour Journal.

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