Monday, December 05, 2005

Scholars, Professionals, and the Value of Knowledge

One of the arguments in the open access movement advanced by publishers is that they have every right to expect to be paid for their valuable work. In some senses, I completely agree; but then, if we apply this concept to the full production of scholarly knowledge - what happens?

That knowledge is of tremendous value is something that I think most of humans can agree on. There are at least two ways of looking at the value of knowledge: as something so precious that it belongs to all of us; or, as an economic commodity like any other.

Let us look at the role of the scholar and the professional in light of these two approaches. To become qualified to participate in the advancement of human knowledge, or to become a practising professional, takes many, many years of education, and ongoing hard work to keep up with the latest developments.

If we see knowledge as something that belongs to all of us, it makes sense for scholars and professionals to make the kind of sacrifices that we do - basically giving away much of our labour for the good of all, with our rewards being modest incomes and a little bit of recognition for our contributions.

On the other hand, if we see knowledge as an economic commodity like any other, perhaps we scholars and professionals should be thinking about pay equity. The salaries of people like professional sports stars, movie stars, and upper management in the corporate sector are often in the hundreds of thousands, and not infrequently millions, of dollars.

If we are looking at this from a purely economic standpoint - isn't the work of the brain surgeon or the dedicated researcher who is working towards a cure for cancer, worth more than the salaries of those who entertain us - no matter how well - or who merely manage? If we think a movie star deserves several million dollars for their role in a movie - what is the worth of the researcher who finds a treatment for stroke that eliminates disability for millions, or a new form of energy that dramatically decreases pollution?

What about the universities, funding agencies, and taxpayers? If knowledge is a commodity - shouldn't the publishers be paying the people who fund the research and support the researcher - not vice versa?

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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