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.