IT Futures

University of Edinburgh

Peter Murray-Rust


Digital Scholarship: Enlightenment or Devastated Landscape? The Right to Read is the Right to Mine


Over 5000 scholarly articles are published per day and it’s becoming impossible. For example, researchers in systematic medical reviewing have to “read” 10000 articles in 10 days to filter out those suited for meta-analysis.  Another spends an hour per day “reading” the literature to find where her work has been mentioned. An HEP researcher measures data off graphs by hand at the rate of one per day.


Machines can solve many of these problems and I’ll demonstrate our software [2]. But the major problem is political. It’s a fight for the soul of the Digital Enlightenment and reformers are in danger of losing. The major publishers “control” access to, and re-use of scholarship. A Dutch statistician, Chris Hartgerink, is interested in the use (and misuse) of statistical measures (such as P-values); he downloaded 30,000 articles so programs could select those of interest. The mega-publisher Elsevier wrote to his University and demanded he stopped his research, and the University apparently complied.


In the UK we have won a small freedom in 2014 – we can now mine the literature for “non-commercial research” although we probably can’t publish the bulk of the results due to copyright. The European Parliament and commission is trying to follow and 2015 has seen massive political activity over Text and Data Mining (TDM, aka ContentMining). I express this as “The Right to Read is the Right to Mine”. Julia Reda, MEP has drafted coherent and positive proposals, but they have had massive anti-lobbying from vested interests such as scholarly publishers. Publishers are increasingly adding legal, contractual, technical and political barriers to assert their control over the whole of electronic scholarship. Worryingly they are building an infrastructure which will coerce scholars to become digital serfs without academic rights or power.


I believe that the Enclosure of the Digital Commons is potentially as serious as the Highland Clearances – a “devastated landscape” [3]. A major part of the digital Enlightenment is machines and humans working together under a fair and just system.



Peter Murray-Rust ( and University of Cambridge. Peter is a chemist currently working at the University of Cambridge. As well as his work in chemistry Murray-Rust is also known for his support of open access and open data. More biographical details here




[2] PMR, Mark MacGillivray, Informatics PhD graduand., Richard Smith-Unna, Cambridge
[3] Fraser Darling see
























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