Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Jump the paywall: a very short guide on how to (anonymusly) access academic research behind paywalls

Image credit: Ewa Rozkosz

Why jump the paywall? Isn’t that (gasp!) illegal?

This is a short how-to guide, not a post about alternative copyright models and the philosophy of access to knowledge , thus it is adequate to to put this quote here as an encapsulation of the many ideas behind a comprehensive answer to the above question:

“if we no longer assume that IP law is, in all circumstances, the régime best capable of overseeing how ideas propagate and flow, then perhaps we should pursue with an even greater resolve extra- legal means by which to mitigate IP’s worst excesses. Better yet, any strategy for contesting the law should proceed through more than just legal channels, lest we inadvertently reinforce the legal realm’s claims to power, authority, and exclusivity in the process” (From “Strategic Improprieties – Cultural Studies, The Everyday, and the Politics of IP” by Ted Striphas and Kembrew McLeod. 2006. pp. 119-144)

If you need to download paywalled articles and resources and don’t have institutional access, here are some tips, from the obvious routes to the more “subversive” options by which you can potentially jump paywalls:

1- Check the authors’ personal website(s). In many cases you’ll find version of the article you need archived there. If not, you’ll find their email addresses, which you’ll need for option #2..
2- Ask the author: If you email the author and ask nicely, they’ll most likely email you back a copy.
3- That “All versions” link in Google Scholar search results: ( Run a Google Scholar query then click on “All…versions” found under each of the search results. Sometimes you can find free/open mirrors for paywalled articles within these expanded search results.
4- Crowd-source access to the article: Several options here, but the most well-known are the#ICanHazPDF hashtag on twitter (, for which you obviously need to be on Twitter, or the /r/Scholar subreddit on Reddit ( In either option, you post a request with the relevant URL or DOI and see if someone can access and upload it for you.
5- Sci-Hub: is essentially the academic equivalent of the Pirate Bay. (be advised that it is blocked in many countries, but you can always find an online mirror). Up-to-date information on Sci-Hub’s status are found on the /r/Scholar subreddit.
Sci-hub also has a Tor address scihub22266oqcxt.onion
6- Library Genesis: Similar to Sci-hub, but is an actual massive repository of articles as opposed to a scanner for open proxies like Sci-Hub. Also like Sci-Hub, has several mirrors. At the time of this writing this mirror is online

On Facebook’s false promises of a “poor man’s internet”

This post was originally published on Aidnography on August 7th 2015.

Last Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s founder and CEO) announced the construction of Aquila, an unmanned aircraft that will be a linchpin to Facebook’s project. The technology behind Aquila is rather impressive: It has a wingspan comparable to that of a jetliner yet weighs less than a car, and uses lasers to beam internet access down to off-the-grid communities from high altitude. There are other neat technical details that make Aquila a technological wonder that opens up thrilling possibilities for the future of connectivity. What is even more exciting is that Facebook’s is not the only project of its kind: there is also Project Loon, a similar initiative by Google to provide Internet access to remote areas using high-altitude balloons. Wikipedia announced Wikipedia Zero, an initiative to provide all of Wikipedia on mobile phones by cooperating with cellular network operators in the developing world. There is also the lesser-known Outernet project, intended to provide access to some Internet content by using small low orbit satellites (the latter being under heavy criticism for being vaporware and overly ambitious plans and technical ambiguity).

It is hard not to get caught up in techno-fetishism watching the glitzy publicity videos and presentations about and other “tech-for-good” initiatives. Nevertheless, the oft-heralded great potential of the Internet as the ultimate “flattener” is yet to be realized, and systemic inequalities still pervade our world. All too often, our eagerness to renew hopes about the promise of technology overrides our skepticism of what Yevgeny Morozov calls technological “solutionism” – which is exactly what is, but that is not the only problem with it.

Facebook wants to bring the Internet to people without access, and consequently allowing these masses to benefit from all the advantages of connectivity; from access to knowledge to more sustainable livelihoods, and that’s a laudable aim. The obvious question we should ask here is: what is in it for Facebook? This is not to imply that big technology companies cannot also be do-gooders, but when we think of how much influence companies like Facebook and Google have over the development of Internet-based technologies, this critical question can be rephrased to be more specific: What does it mean for the Internet?

Beyond the praiseworthy premise of, it is no humanitarian is Facebook’s attempt to compartmentalize the Internet and dominate the online advertising market in developing countries for many years to come, all under the facade of techno-altruism. With this project, Facebook essentially constructs a walled garden of pseudo-access where it is the gatekeeper of networked services. And not only that, does not allow encrypted content in a time where the importance of encryption cannot be more apparent.

If Facebook truly wants to do good and make the Internet more accessible to the poor, it should not offer a scaled-down, crippled and encryption-less “poor-man’s Internet”, but come up with ways to provide low-cost access to the actual, open Internet to remote and rural areas. Judging by the technology behind connectivity-beaming drones like Aquila, the technical means to do this are there. If we are to learn from the past, solutionism is not a pathway to development, and to see evidence of this we can look back on projects like the One Laptop Per Child initiative.
Facebook and Google want to bring connectivity to the next billion, and aside from the problematic consequences of for net neutrality and privacy, we should also remember that poverty, inequalities and exclusion are very complex phenomena, and with dynamics and characteristics which are not inherently technological and not solely dependent on connectivity.

Whose code counts? The Future Implications of Technological Abundance

Futurist Roy Amara once observed that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. This quotation, which came to be known as “Amara’s Law”, seems to hold true as one ponders the implications of the increasing technological profusion of our world, where connectivity and accessibility continuously proliferate. The Internet was (and still is) heralded as the great flattener, and yet systemic inequality still seems to be the defining characteristic of our world. To understand why Amara’s Law can be a useful future heuristic for thinking about the relationship between technological change and international development, consider the following two examples:

Example 1: Access to academic knowledge

The Internet provides the perfect knowledge sharing and distribution platform, yet the true potential for a revolution in academic openaccessknowledge production and sharing (despite the growing popularity of the Open Access movement) continues to be hamstrung by the regulatory hegemony of aging knowledge distribution business models conceived – and were valuable and important – in a world that pre-dates the Internet. Herein lies the rift between what could be and what is, as evident in the first half of Amara’s observation. We have the technological tools, platforms and infrastructure necessary to revolutionise how knowledge is created, shared and accessed, yet our business models and intellectual property legislation are lagging. Technology’s fullest potential is not being realised. The promise of an egalitarian ethos of knowledge starkly contrasts with the current reality.  Stanford scholar Lawrence Lessig’s observations on the legislative properties of code (software), especially with respect to copyright law, ring true.

Example 2: 3D Printing


Low cost prosthetics made possible by 3D printing. Image credits:

There is a quiet revolution happening in how we design and create things, and it is called 3D printing, which is the process of creating a physical model from a digital file. The technology itself is not very new, but the cost of making and buying 3D printers has massively gone down in recent years. The implications of this for democratising innovation are enormous. There is already talk of 3D printed housing for rapid-response to disaster stricken areas, and the technology is already helping people in developing countries create innovative solutions to meet their local needs at very low costs. For Sci-Fi fans, we are one step closer to Star Trek’s famous replicator. The barriers of prohibitive cost and access to tools for creativity and innovation are collapsing rapidly. In a way, we are indeed living in the future and we’re not even noticing. When it comes to 3D printing, the second half of Amara’s Law holds true.

Critically investigating the promise of Digital Abundance

The above two examples in relation to Amara’s Law bring us to the following question: How can we conceive of the social, economic and political implications of an exponentially accelerating pace of technological change in a hyper-connected world? Our laws and regulations as well as values and ethical considerations evolve much slower than technology, and thus gaps emerge between technology’s potential and the extent to which this potential is realised in ways that provide tangible and measurable benefits to people around the world, especially the most marginalised. We could pose this question differently: What are the parameters necessary for understanding our future of computational and technological abundance? As digital networking and ubiquitous computing permeate politics, economics and culture, new forms of power are normalised. The late programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz cogently noted that “On the Internet everybody is entitled to speak, the question is: Who gets Heard?” In a world where (immaterial) software has significant (material) consequences, which define who gets heard, who produces knowledge and under what assumptions, not only do we have to engage in critical examinations of the realities that shape processes of development, but we also need to ask: Whose Code Counts?

On Openness: What’s holding back efficient collaboration on complex issues in international development?

This post was previously published on the IDS Participation, power and social change blog on 23th January 2013. 

It is high time the development research community started learning from computer scientists, who have long realised that tackling complex problems is most optimally done by distributing effort and resources. In the computing world, the term ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving‘ (CDPS) refers to a system whereby, a network of independent, often geographically distant, computing devices can work together to solve a given problem.

In my research, I look at how some of these new modes of technologically-catalysed collaboration influence relationships in spheres of political contention, specifically in environments experiencing tempestuoustransitions and high degrees of uncertainty. Networked communities and the exponentially evolving information and communication technologies are increasingly providing better means for:

  • collaborative knowledge production
  • distributed problem-solving
  • flattening hierarchies of leadership and decision making.

Disciplinary islands

Development academia is cognizant that adapting to an increasingly complex world requires tapping into new, or at least unconventional, approaches to participation. There is no shortage of studies on addressing complexity, participatory knowledge creation, and technologically-facilitated collaboration in contemporary development literature. There is also plenty of innovative thinking going on, but the problem is that this thinking often seems to be happening in disciplinary islands without much interconnectedness, which is something that I have alluded to in aprevious blog post. Yet I want to highlight that the greatest limitation to the formation of such networks of collaboration is not a dearth of willingness of those concerned, but restricted access to the necessary channels of knowledge.

picture of lonely island

photo credit: Sinead Friel, creative commons license

Research behind paywalls
As much as the notion of ‘openness’ pervades contemporary discourses in development, there is perverse, almost deliberate, disregard to the fact that much of the research on ‘open development’, open data, access to knowledge and other relevant themes is, paradoxically, behind paywalls. A researcher succinctly bemoaned this in this recent tweet. Indeed, there are increasing voices of discontent, but what is still missing is a more vocal critique of this glaring dissonance.

Amartya Sen observed that the main culprit of food shortages is not the lack of food, but the inequalities inherent in how food is distributed. The same observation rings true if we consider the problem with the economy of ideas in international development research. Innovative thinking and possibilities for collaborative research and knowledge production are not scarce, yet the disconnected knowledge silos in which bits and pieces of the puzzle are scattered, largely due to the outmoded academic publishing systems, are  holding back the realisation of a big part of this potential. That is, the aging and now irrelevant distribution channels of knowledge are the main problem. The elephant in the room of development research is the false openness which is only starting to be, somewhat timidly, acknowledged by a small but increasing number of academics.

So, the main constraint-to a truly inclusive global collaboration on the world’s most pressing issues-is access, not willingness. To further illustrate this, let’s extend the parallel between distributed computing and emerging paradigms of knowledge sharing and collaboration. For a ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving’ system to work, the most fundamental requirement is openness. That is, inputs to the system must not be centrally stored or controlled. Applying this imperative to collaboration in development research, it quickly becomes obvious that the inputs (mostly western-produced research) are heavily centralised, mostly behind publishing paywalls. While there is a rapidly growing interest in open access publishing, the fact that restricted access to research is probably the largest bottleneck to a true co-production of knowledge still doesn’t seem to be adequately recognised.

Complicity in upholding the walled gardens of knowledge
I believe that we, as development researchers and academics, should actively advocate the open access movement and staunchly champion a more rapid shift in the aging paradigms of academic publishing. Otherwise, we concede an undeniable (if sometimes indirect) complicity in upholding these walled gardens of knowledge. We also risk letting ‘openness’ become yet another buzzword with a diluted, nebulous meaning. Choosing to publish your research in open access journals does not only facilitate the creation of new knowledge, but also has been shown to amplify research impact. The emerging technological facilitators of our hyper-connected world are rapidly relegating conventional modes of institutional knowledge production and brokering, which are not only restrictive but also resource-draining, to obsolescence. The desirable path forward is one where the notion of ‘openness’ oft advocated in contemporary development discourses is mirrored in the knowledge pathways through which such discourses flow.

A Tale of Two Workshops: the Internet and the future of creativity and publishing in the Arab World

Recently I had the chance to facilitate two thematically related workshops given to two different audiences. The first was part of the Arab Digital Book Expression Program and was given to a group of young Egyptians who are interested in independent e-book publishing. The second workshop was given to a number of professionals and publishing house owners from the Egyptian Publishers’ Union. Both workshops broadly addressed how the Internet is affecting extant systems of publishing, copyright laws, as well as the how it is empowering content creators and changing the role of the publishers (the sessions were slightly tailored to be relevant to the interests of the two groups). The reactions of these two groups of participants highlighted the rift in expectations about the impact of emerging network technologies on creativity and the publishing world, and by consequence draw attention to the main obstacles against the emergence of alternative publishing models and a freer environment of knowledge and creativity in the Arab World.

In many ways, the difference between these two groups and how they responded to the themes tackled in the two sessions mirrors dynamics of change (and resistance to it) that have been triggered by the Arab uprisings, and underscore some of the key drivers behind these transformations. The questions from the publishers group were revealing of a prevailing sentiment in the publishing industry; that which regards the Internet mainly as a threat to their business models, and which still envisions the role of the publisher merely as a sort of logistical intermediary of culture. While this sentiment is not unique to Arab publishers, it is important to note how many still fail to grasp that new technologies offer as many, or perhaps more, opportunities as they do imperil paradigms of knowledge creation and distribution that predate the Internet.

The other group was comprised of young people with diverse interests, including art, film making, political activism, among others. This group did not appear to be, on average, more technologically-savvy than the publishers group, but all its members shared an interest in how they can independently create and distribute their creative literary work. Everyone in this session seemed very eager to explore the opportunities and tools presented in some of the topics discussed, even beyond what the time limit of the session allowed. The energy and enthusiasm in this group exemplifies an emerging ethos of a technologically-democratised creativity, more accessible co-creation of knowledge and a less restricted ecosystem of cultural production.

Across the Arab World, reactionary forces still cling to their authoritarian roots and place hurdle after another in the face of movements pushing for progress, the latter being largely driven by young people, who are a demographic majority in many Arab countries like Egypt. Given the great uncertainty in the political transitions the Arab World is experiencing, it is far from assured there will be any kind of genuine democratic transformations in the near future in some or all of these countries. One thing we can claim with some modicum of conviction, though, is that the disruptions created by the events of the Arab uprisings have created new contexts of political contention that makes it increasingly difficult for authoritarian regimes to play the ‘long game’ and preserve the status quo. Similarly, if Arab publishers – including those in the realms of music, film and digital content – continue to regard the Internet as merely disruptive and remain entrenched in business models that are rapidly falling out of relevance, they miss opportunities that they can capitalise upon sooner than later. The very notion of what a publisher is and does is changing. Internet skeptics miss the forest for the trees when they try to think of contemporary modes of creativity in terms of the pre hyper-connectivity world.

The big picture is this: The Internet is changing is not only the roles of cultural intermediaries in our communities, but also creating new ones. The incipient horizon is of a world where the cultural public sphere embodies the notion of ‘building upon’, and the role of publishers shifts from being ‘gate-keepers’ of knowledge and creativity to facilitators in and catalysts of an unrestricted cross-pollination of prospects for creative pursuits. Instead of focusing on how to continue policing the boundaries of access to creative resources, a task that is increasingly becoming technically impractical and rationally untenable, Arab publishers should switch their attention to how best to tailor their core functions to a world where preparation for printing and physical distribution are not the main value added by a publisher to the creative production process. If we are currently hoping for a sociopolitical renaissance in the Arab World, an unrestricted domain of cultural production and creativity will have an integral role to play in it.

Developmental hackspaces: Fostering a meta-participatory ethos for Information and Communication Technologies for Development

The program for the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Development Conference includes a paper session titled “Expanding Participation”, which invokes thinking about the clearly rising convergence of many conceptual and practical repertoires of development research, practice and emerging information and communications technologies (ICTs). The sustained interest in participation (as a large and diverse set of methodologies, practices and frameworks) and how it continues to inform the general developmental zeitgeist is paralleled by the steady evolution in technologies and technological practices that have their own embedded manifestations of the participatory ethos. Technically-focused communities such as the open source movement and technologies such as crowdsourcing, with characteristics of openness, social collaboration, and unrestricted information flows mirror the inclusiveness inherent in participatory processes in development work.

With such a similitude in the participative and increasingly democratized cultures characterizing the current evolution in development and technical communities, an important question arises: Are we, as development researchers and practitioners, adequately capitalizing on the potential opportunities created (as a result for such a convergence of shared values) for collaboration with our technical counterparts? Are we able to reimagine development within a context of the accelerating rate of change that the increasingly rapid rate of technological advancement brings about? How are we able to reconceive our ‘traditional’ ways of thinking about the global developmental priorities in a world characterized by such an accelerating rate of change?

The purpose of this blog post is not to offer any adequate answers to these questions, but to present a call to action on an issue with direct bearing on formulating these answers. How can development practitioners and technology professionals capitalize on shared values, more effectively collaborate on solving complex developmental issues and foster a reciprocal cross-pollination of ideas that is mutually valuable in finding practical and sustainable solutions in an increasingly dynamic global environment?  The collaborative spaces already exist, considering the multitude of cross-disciplinary conferences, research programs and development interventions that combine input from and invite partnership between those working in both realms of development practice and technological innovation, as well as local stakeholders and institutions. That is, the attention to inclusiveness and participation as central notions of collaborative efforts across joint undertakings between the development and technology domains is already extant and arguably on the rise. What needs more attention is factors affecting the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of collaboration between those working in development practice and their opposite numbers in the technology and innovation world, and this is what is meant by ‘meta-participatory’ in the title of this post.

Many of the attributes that both groups have in common have already been discussed. What about divergences? What stands in the way of a more vibrant alliance between development and technology? In many cases, it all about finding the right balance. Here are two key observations:

  • Disparate views on the role of technology for development: this is an elementary – even obvious – observation, but remains fundamental to bridging gaps in conception of technological tools and processes for development. Without risking treading into territory mined with multifarious and often polarized debates on the subject, and for the purpose of the main thrust of this post, it would suffice to say that development practitioners need to adopt a little more techno-fetishism, while technologists would probably do well to accept an additional degree of practical conservatism. In other words, we need to balance long-term, futuristic outlooks on the possibilities of what technology can (or cannot) do for development with short-term, pragmatic focuses on specific interventions. An equilibrium of far-sighted vision and effective action cannot exist otherwise.
  • Conflicting working ‘tempos’: technologists often have a ‘keyed-up’ working pace. Prototypes are built, deployed, tested and improved upon in a cycle that is analogous to but much faster than the slow-paced, deliberative, power-sensitive process that lies at the core of participatory methodologies. In collaborative projects, finding a practical balance of pace is difficult, but achievable.

The late Steve Jobs, one of the technological icons of present times, once said “…innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem”. Sudden moments of clarity and late night phone calls aside, if we are to truly co-construct knowledge about how find technologically-catalyzed solutions for global development challenges, we need to break out of our respective disciplinary silos and start reciprocally but constructively shooting holes in our preconceived notions about how to find these solutions. We need to open sourcedevelopment by building upon the shared values of participation and inclusiveness and promoting a joint discourse of ideas at the intersection of practical intervention, technological innovation and ethical considerations.