Monthly Archives: October 2015


Open Education Needs Collaboration, Not Copyright


“This song is Copyrighted in the U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” 

Woody Guthrie

Open will win. It will win on the internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: The future of government is transparency. .. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. “

Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior VP, Google


We’ve all googled for a particular article or paper, only to find that we’d have to pay $30 to read it and thought ‘stuff that – someone will have made it available for nothing’. Paywalls are the bane of researcher’s lives. So, when I heard about the  #icanhazpdf hashtag, it seemed, not only unnecessary, but also verging on the paranoid. 

Allow me to explain: Some academics, frustrated at the lack of Open Access to their work, are promoting ‘circumvention’. Andrea Kuszewski set up the hashtag #icanhazpdf, (a tribute to the infamous #icanhascheezburger meme) to encourage authors of paywalled articles to share pdf copies of their work. I’ve shared pdfs of my own articles, dozens of times. But by doing so, authors, having handed over the rights to the publisher, are technically in breach of copyright law. So, once the requested #icanhazpdf paper has been delivered, Andrea strongly recommends that the tweet is swiftly deleted. She describes it as ‘an act of civil disobedience – it’s just a way of saying things need to change.’ 


Like I said, ingenious, playful, but a tad paranoid? That was until I heard about Dan Pazskowski . Dan is the CEO of the Canadian Vintners Association. An article concerning the CVA appeared in Blacklock’s Reporter, a subscription-only journal. Dan didn’t have a subscription, but a colleague did, so Dan asked for a copy of the article. When Dan contacted Blacklock’s Reporter about some inaccuracies in the article, he was asked how he’d read the article, as he wasn’t a subscriber. He was then sent an invoice for $314, which he refused to pay. Dan was then taken to the Ontario Small Claims Court, where he was ordered to pay $11,470, plus taxes, in damages.

So, it’s perfectly legal to lend a friend a copy of a book you’ve bought, but not, apparently, a journal article? Dan is appealing the decision and all advocates of open access will be hoping he wins. Jonathan Rosenberg is right: OPEN will win. But vested interests will fight tooth-and-claw to hang on to outdated, and restrictive, copyright shackles.

The battle for OPEN is in constant play. This week saw some significant gains for Open Access advocates: US Secretary of State for Education Arne Duncan introduced the ‘#GoOpen’ initiative. This government campaign ‘encourage’ states, districts and schools to use open licensed education materials. In order to provide further encouragement, legislation is being proposed ‘that would require all copyrightable intellectual property created with Department grant funds to have an open license.’ A growing number of districts are supporting the initiative, which could eventually see the end of the textbook in US schools. I haven’t yet seen the response from the major education publishers, but I can’t imagine they’re thrilled at the prospect.

In the UK, the Open Access movement has largely been confined to higher education institutions. The logic in both the UK and the US is the same: when academic papers have been publicly funded by taxpayers, why should we have to pay again to read them? Most colleges around the world have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in subscriptions to academic journals, yet the authors of these papers rarely receive payment for their publication.

Academics want their work to be shared with the widest possible audience. As an Oxford academic recently said: ‘Most academics want to communicate things; most conventional publishing fails to do that substantially.’ Do the maths: even popular academic over-priced books sell in the low thousands – Ken Robinson’s Creativity Ted talk has been viewed thirty-five million times.

We’re witnessing ideas spreading like bush fires, through personal and social networks, tweets, Facebook, blogs and google searches. The future of innovation, and the future of research, lies in collaboration, and that can’t happen whilst knowledge is locked away and people face prosecution for attempting to unlock it.


Generation Screwed


When I wrote the final chapter of OPEN, I wanted to draw attention to what I saw as the increasingly desperate plight of young people and the bleak prospects they were facing.

Here’s how I summarised the inequality we in the West had created, and it’s effect upon young people:

“Despite the best efforts of successive UK governments,…the number of Britons in relative poverty has consistently risen since 1980. In 1970, CEOs in America earned 39 times the average salary of their company’s employees. By 2000, that multiplier had risen to 1039 times the average worker’s salary. By 2011, the 1% of wealthiest Americans, who so angered the Occupy movement, controlled 40% of the nation’s wealth. Even in the post-Global Financial Crisis era of belt-tightening, the top 1% have seen their incomes rise 18%, while middle-class incomes have fallen – so much for the power of trickle-down economics….Everywhere you look, the people who are being disproportionately punished are the under-25s. Globally, young people (aged 15-24) constitute a quarter of the world’s working age population, yet they make up almost half of all those unemployed. Here’s a depressing stat: 1 in 5 of the entire world’s young live on less than $1 a day.”

At the time, I feared I was perhaps being overly alarmist. It turns out I didn’t go far enough.

A report just published in the UK by the Equality and Human Rights Commission ‘Is Britain Fairer?’ concludes with a resounding ‘no’ – especially if you’re young. As the Independent reported:

“Young people are suffering the “worst economic prospects for several generations” as a worrying age inequality gap is opening up in Britain…Younger people have been hit by the greatest drop in income and employment in recent years compared with older age groups. They also face even greater barriers to achieving economic independence and success than they did five years ago. ..During the recession and up to 2013, people under 34 experienced the steepest fall in incomes and employment, less access to decent housing and better-paid jobs, and deepening poverty. Between 2008 and 2013, those aged 16-24 lost 60 pence an hour on average, dragging average pay down to £6.70. For the 25-34 age bracket, wages fell by an average of £1.40 to £10.60.” 

Spanish Youth Protestors
“No work, No house, No Pension” Youth Without Fear

England is not alone in its shameful treatment of young people – other European countries, and the US have been similarly neglectful. But we seem to have a government that is, at best, indifferent to the very people it should be cherishing, if for no other motive than pure self-interest. Consider what we’re asking the millennials to take on:

  1. Support the baby boomers, who will live longer than any previous generation having racked up eye-watering amounts of public debt, and starved the National Health Service they will increasingly come to rely upon (I speak as one of their clan);
  2. Address, as a matter of urgency, the need for drastic action on climate changes as the clock runs down, and we approach the point of no return of global warming;
  3. Fix a broken political system that – Jeremy Corbyn excepted – they have been excluded from, and therefore have no interest in;
  4. Reverse the growing inequality gap that the report highlights, while facing multiple vested interests and an inexplicable mood of apathy.

…and there’s more, but it’ll only depress you. I know it depresses me.

And their reward for all this? What Philip Brown described as a ‘high skills/low income’ future, increasing unemployment prospect thanks to the inexorable rise of automation and artificial intelligence, and little prospect of owning their own home and building a pension pot to sustain them in old age.

The mystery, in all of this, is the apparent absence of resistance. Where’s the UK equivalent of the excellent ‘Generation Screwed’ in Canada?  Aside from the English riots of 2011, and anti-austerity demonstration in Spain and Greece, there are few signs of widespread revulsion and refusal to accept the status quo. Some have put this down to a sense of weary acceptance, but I prefer to believe that, contrary to media portrayals of millennials as selfish and feckless, they have retained a sense of optimism.

Though it never made it to the final draft, here’s how I rationalised it in OPEN:

“I have the privilege of working with young people in a number of countries, and the miracle is that, despite all of the above, they seem remarkably free of resentment towards us. Maybe they haven’t realised yet what a bloody awful mess we’ve left them with – when they do, I’d hide the knives if I were you.”

life support machines

We’re All Stage Four

While never claiming to be a prolific blogger, I’ve been unusually quiet of late – even by my standards. This post goes some way towards explaining why. I should preface it by saying that I’m somewhat hesitant about sharing another health-related experience with you. I began ‘OPEN’ by describing my discovery of an hereditary heart condition, in fairly dramatic circumstances. Everyone said it made for a gripping opening to the book, but no-one wants to repeat themselves. I can only hope that my experiences over the past month might have wider resonance with readers.

Over the course of the summer I’d had a number of bowel-related problems which needed to be checked out via a colonoscopy. For someone as fastidious about my health – some would say obsessive -I should have done this years ago. The scope revealed a 3 cm tumour in the descending colon. The good news was that it had not spread and the prognosis was very good: the bad news was that I’d have to lose quite a big chunk of my large bowel. On Sept 8th I went under the knife. All seemed to go well, and the bowel was reconnected. I began to look forward to going home.

(Spoiler alert: If you’re squeamish stop reading now….)

A few days later, however, I began to be in a lot of pain, with a hugely distended stomach. A scan showed that the join was leaking. It’s never a good thing to have the contents of your bowel roaming free, and this poisoning (sepsis) can be life-threatening. I was whisked back into theatre for an emergency fix, lost a bit more bowel – at which point things started to unravel quite quickly. My heart began fibrillating, my blood pressure plummeted, so that I had to be pumped full of noradrenaline. Oh, and my kidneys started failing and I had to be put on a ventilator. I, of course, was blissfully unaware of what was going on (they sedated me for 48 hours, while they flushed the toxins out of my body) but my wife was told to ‘gather the family’. That’s never a good sign.

Clearly, I survived – thanks to the amazing intensive care team and Bradford hospital – but it was touch and go. I’m now back home, trying to regain some of the 30lbs I lost through surgeries and a month on a ward, and adjusting to my new life with a stoma (which may be temporary or permanent).

It’s at this point in the narrative that I’d share some flashes of wisdom, some deep existential insights. I’m afraid I don’t have any. If I’d checked out in that intensive care unit there’d have been no white lights at the end of a tunnel; no out-of-body experience. I’d have passed from one state of being, to a state of unbeing, without any knowledge of the transition. Why I survived, when others being treated didn’t, is a mystery to me – I suspect luck played a big part.

But, in talking through the enormity of what happened with my wife, one conviction kept coming back. It’s one that we often tell ourselves and others, but I wonder how many of us truly believe it, and it’s this: we often judge our lives by the things we achieve, the prizes we win, the respect of our peers. None of that matters, in the end. The only thing that matters is how we were loved. Many people never get a chance to witness the outpouring of love and compassion I experienced: from the amazing doctors and nurses who worked 24/7 to keep me alive; to the messages from friends all over the world, and the deep – but often unvoiced – love of close family. In that respect, at least, I’ve been blessed.

When you get a cancer diagnosis – and this has been my second, so you’d think I’d know better by now – your biggest concern is your staging. Stage one is good, stage four isn’t. But, in reality, we’re all stage four – we all face the inevitable end one day, even if we in the West pretend we’re immortal. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been reminded of what truly matters. I just hope I remember it next time I’m fretting about a presentation I’m about to make.

I love my work, so I’m eager to get back into it in the coming weeks. But over the past month I’ve also been reminded how fragile we all are, and I want to see and do things with the people I love, while I still can.

Be well.