Over the weekend, Reddit founder Aaron Swartz was arrested for hacking into MIT, in a bid to access and share the contents of JSTOR, a humanities-focused academic article database. Matthew Yglesias makes an important point:
Right now in academic publishing, what you have is basically a lot of donor- and government-financed nonprofit organizations taking outputs with near-zero distribution costs (electronic journal archives) and selling them to each other. For any one institution, this kind of makes sense. A publisher doesn't want to give up his fees, which are valuable in meeting the costs of producing scholarship. But on net, it's a mix of pointless and pernicious. Sale of access to journals helps finance scholarship, but it also raises the cost of scholarship. If everything was distributed for free, the whole exact same enterprise could be undertaken with no net financial loss. But there would be huge potential gains. A precocious 17 year-old could have free access to scholarship. So could a researcher living and working in a poor country. Or even an earnest political reporter who's working on an issue and curious about what political science has to say about it.
Here at The Interpreter, we've tried a few times to run a monthly Linkage feature of the latest academic papers in international relations, foreign policy and the like. But getting public access to these articles is often impossible. I can get them as a uni student, but the journalists, government officials and members of the public who read this site often can't.
As much as subscription access to academic research/journals once made sense, it's time for an end to the system. The general rule should be that if the public pays for any of the costs of an article, a free PDF version should be made available (with costs charged for hardcopies, ala ANU's E-Press system). Private journals can obviously decide their own affairs, but the academic community is only hurting itself, and its long term public support, by keeping its knowledge behind high subscription walls.
Photo by Flickr user ostrograd.