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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 04, 2001

This is an interesting development...

SkillSoft Corp.... today announced that it has recently signed an agreement with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to publish and distribute articles from Knowledge@Wharton, the school's research and business website. Under the agreement, SkillSoft will select articles from each bi-weekly issue of Knowledge@Wharton. These articles will be posted to the SkillSoft corporate web site and SkillPort, SkillSoft's e-learning platform.

The Knowledge@Aharton site provides summaries and links to pdf versions of academics' scholarly articles. It's a useful service, no doubt regularly trolled by science, tech and business writers.

Now no financial terms - if any - were released by Wharton or SkillSoft, but as SkillSoft turns around and uses these materials in revenue generating activities, it seems likely that over time we will see arrangements between companies like SkillSoft and institutions like Wharton for the distribution of academic papers.

Indeed, there will be considerable temptation for a company like Wharton to obtain exclusive rights over these publications: re-selling them to students and the media via some form of content syndication network would be a profitable business.

It has long been understood that academics own the rights to their own publications. This may change, just as we have been seeing pressure for change in the area of online course content. If colleges and universities establish a system whereby they pay royalties for course content, thereby assuming some rights over the use of that course content, then if they can charge fees for academic papers, it seems reasonable to assume they will try to enter into a similar arrangement with their academic authors.

Are university professors ready to produce research papers on a 'work for hire' basis? And what impact will this have on existing compensation arrangements when two primary activities of academics - course preparation and research publication - are sold and marketed on the open market.

These questions are asked in the light of other initiatives which strive to remove academic works from the constraints of existing publication arrangements. For example, the ELectronic Society for Social Scientists is an initiative aimed at distributing academic publications at much lower cost (and free for the developing world). Or there is the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), the aim of which is to promote the creation of community controlled scientific journals.

The commodification of research papers would short circuit these initiatives, pushing professors into an exchange whereby they trade in their individual relationships (such as they are) with traditional jounal publishers, and forge new relationships, via their institutions, with online publishers.

This is not necessarily good for professors, and arguably not good for research as a whole.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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