Like King Arthur facing the absurd taunts of the “French” knights in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Laura McKenna, Atlantic contributor, laments the frustratingly irrational cost of access to the research published in academic journals. JSTOR and other electronic research databases may not throw cattle or tell you that “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries,” but JSTOR’s 150 million access denials suggest a degree of kinship with the outlandish obstructionists.
As a student at a comprehensive research university that provides access to these databases, you may not be aware of the barriers to access for the general public or what it means to deny such access. For example, McKenna recalls that she
searched for an article about autism on JSTOR, the online database of academic journals. I have a child on the autistic spectrum, and I like to be aware of the latest research on the topic. I could not access any of the first 200 articles that contained the word “autism.” That’s because, for the most part, only individuals with a college ID card can read academic journal articles. Everyone else, including journalists, non-affiliated scholars, think tanks and curious individuals, must pay a substantial fee per article, if the articles are available at all. I later found one article that was available for $38. I’m not sure why one twelve page article costs $38. It takes me about eight minutes to scan a twelve page article. [And] the researcher receives no royalties.
As an OSU student, you are not required to pay these individual fees, but you have paid for unlimited access in your mandatory fees—namely, the “library automation and technology fee.” The OSU Bursar explains, “The library automation & technology fee defray the cost of equipment, software, and other aspects related to operating the on-line computerized library service. This fee also protects student access to heavily-used electronic journals and on-demand information services despite escalating costs and the termination of services by outside library agencies.” The cost of maintaining this system amounts to $13.75 per credit hour—almost 7% of an undergraduate’s mandatory academic fees.
In response to the high cost of access, some have taken action in protest. Last summer computer hacker and activist Aaron Swartz was arrested and now faces federal prosecution for downloading millions of academic articles to a laptop hidden in a networking closet on MIT’s campus. Secret Service agent Michael Pickett told the MIT police officer in charge of the case that “approximately 70 gigabytes of data had been downloaded, 98% of which was from JSTOR,” which MIT valued at $50,000
Some researchers, who favor “open-science,” are also protesting to the “closed” publishing system. In a recent post David Dobbs of Wired.com explains that “scientists are pledging by the hundreds to not cooperate with [academic publisher] Elsevier in any way—refusing to publish in its journals, referee its papers, or do the editorial work that researchers have been supplying to journals without charge for decades—and the rebellion is repeatedly reaching the pages of the New York Times and Forbes.”
I certainly do not condone the criminal action of Aaron Swartz, but I do encourage you to explore the many pros and cons of the research publishing system. Even if you choose not to pursue a career in research, the many limits to journal access could affect you as it does Laura McKenna. Feel free to open a dialogue by commenting here.
Continue to McKenna’s full article…