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The Great Brain Robbery

Last month, Via Meadia reviewed a recent study about the quality of academic research and came to a disappointing conclusion: Much of the research produced by academics isn’t very good. A recent article in The Atlantic adds a new wrinkle: Not only is the quality of this research quite poor, universities are spending a fortune to view it. According to the Atlantic, professors and academic journals create the content for free, but then universities are forced to pay to view the content they create. The article puts it best:

Having bought the rights to the academic research, JSTOR digitizes the material and sells the content back to the university libraries. To recoup their costs of leasing the information from the publishers, the academic search engines use a subscription model to restrict the content to those who can pay the hefty price tag. A substantial part of the university library budget is devoted towards subscriptions to those databases. The UC San Diego Libraries report that 65% of their total budget goes towards getting access to JSTOR and other databases. To get access to the Arts and Sciences collection at JSTOR — only one of the many databases and collections of information — university libraries must pay a one time charge of $45,000 and then $8,500 every year after that.

Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public — which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system — has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year.

The last bit rang a little false to us; faculty members who want the results of their research to reach a broader public have plenty of opportunities to write op-eds, reports for think tanks or even, for those lost to all sense of propriety, blog posts.  Nevertheless, an essential aspect of a university’s mission is to make knowledge as widely available as possible; perhaps a consortium of leading universities could find ways to force JSTOR and others to adopt a business model more in keeping with the nature of academic ideals.

There are reports that JSTOR is looking at alternative delivery models; much more remains to be done.

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  • gooch mango

    Since the research isn’t very good, why would I care what they charge? Just ignore it, and laugh at those who cite it. Problem solved.

  • Anonymous Academic

    *Tenured* academics who want the results of their research to reach a broader audience can freely do the things you described, such as writing op-eds, blog posts, etc. In many disciplines, this type of activity is highly frowned upon and is harmful to the careers of those who do it. Given that more and more academics are not tenured, the number of academics who can actually speak to the public without punishment is relatively small.

  • Jbird

    in my academic career undergrad through Masters, I found JSTOR to be invaluable. The amount of time the service saves through search features and the access to the number of journals is a service well worth the money, in my opinion. Now, the value of the research itself is an entirely different question. But, when your professor requires at least 5 sources in a paper, you have to find them somewhere.

  • WigWag

    The problem Professor Mead mentions in this post is much less of an issue in the world of biomedical research.

    The Pub Med system is the search engine of choice to find articles published on biomedical research. It is free and easily available to anyone including the general public. Of course it is maintained by the National Library of medicine which is a constituent of the NIH. Taxpayers foot the bill; it is truly a worthwhile expenditure for a great resource. Google Scholar is also worth a look.

    In the biomedical research world, investigators are now routinely required as a condition of their NIH grants to provide raw, deidentified (to protect privacy) data supporting their publications to a new data base maintained by the National Library of Medicine. Again, it’s online and free to anyone who wants to take a look.

    Finally, NIH, NSF and many private agencies are now requiring grant recipients to publish data on a variety of databases put together to aggregate data on different subjects. For example, there is a database (available for free) called dpgap that includes the gene sequences for all newly discovered genetic regions untangled with NIH funds.

    Perhaps the rest of the academic world can learn from their colleagues who do biomedical research.

  • ari

    The article and comments here are
    good ones. I would add that if you
    go through lists of journal articles every
    month you will find that most are sub-par
    quality, not interesting, or repeating
    already stated material that can be viewed
    in previously published material. The solution is higher standards, less professors and universities and more quality, not quantity.

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