I’m re-visiting a topic that I wrote about recently because…well, because I think that it’s a topic that deserves discussion, and also because it re-surfaced for me this week when I read this memo from the faculty advisory council of Harvard detailing how the subscription prices that the school pays for academic journals have reached a level that is unsustainable.

Now, this is a bit of a sticky subject, partly because I’m a writer, and because I have several friends and a spouse employed in academia. Let me say up front that I recognize that getting an author’s writing into the hands of readers in published form is not an inexpensive process. I also recognize that professors and researchers perform a critical public service and should be paid well, and, as with nearly any profession that provides critical public services in the U.S., they are grossly underpaid now. I recognize that publishers must earn enough money to cover the costs of distribution and to pay their marketers and editors and designers, etc.

All that said, though, I have a problem when businesses opportunistically seek to earn a profit from critical public services, and an increasingly large profit, at that. University professors are conducting their research to contribute to the development of their disciplines. This is how knowledge grows. All of these disciplines, whether they are arts, humanities, or sciences, are components of our society at large. Thus, while the professors’ teaching is reserved largely for those paying for a seat in their classroom, their research is conducted for the public good, and, in the case of public schools, are funded at least in part by public money.

We consider access to our culture’s literature to be a right, not a privilege. That is why publicly funded libraries exist (although some areas have tragically chosen to curtail that funding). I would argue that access to research conducted for the public’s best interest is also a right.┬áTo take research that is conducted, written, and reviewed for accuracy by peers, all for the public good, and trap it behind a paywall that, by definition, limits the number of people who can access it, is an approach that I find to be misguided at best, and reprehensible at worst. Yet, just as publishers have moved to rob the public of its right to read literature by limiting ebook access to libraries for fear of losing profit, so do some academic publishers appear to be limiting scholarly pursuits by placing exorbitant prices on their subscriptions.

For a school of the economic stature of Harvard to declare the subscription prices of academic publishers unsustainable is indicative of a very, very serious problem. Yet, acceptance of publishers supporting these business models seems to be so widespread as to even have Congressional support. Is the goal to preserve an academic, ivory tower elite by also preserving a public that remains largely illiterate of new research in various disciplines by virtue of the fact that it has no access to that research? Doing so smacks of pre-Reformation church practices of perpetuating Scriptural illiteracy and subsequently selling indulgences.

As I know many professors, I can tell you that this is not the goal of the researchers. They, like artists, are interested in their work being available for the public to engage, and for the public to walk away from this engagement growing as human beings. As with artists, though, researchers are subject to the fact that distributing their work places them at the whim of publishers who sometimes place needless limitations on who can read their work.

I’m happy to see that Harvard is encouraging its faculty to seek publication in open access journals, because they have the academic and cultural prestige necessary to help force this into common practice. I believe that open access should be the future of academic publishing. What this looks like for professors and researchers, I don’t know.

What I do know is this: as new ways of instant distribution and communication have become ubiquitous, both traditional and academic publishers must stop dragging their feet in embracing and adapting to new models simply because they fear some of their precious money slipping through their fingers. Doing so will result in more authors and researchers choosing to simply bypass them altogether to place their work into the public sphere. Adapting to concepts like open access is in everyone’s best interest.

And by “everyone,” I mean all of us.

Photo Attribution: G&A Sattler

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