Monday, October 31, 2011

The High Cost of Knowledge

In the midst of a round of research this morning, I came across a number of articles in scholarly journals that I was interested in taking a peek at, but I didn't because they were locked up in pay sites for various journals or consortia of journals.  This is nothing new: since I'm not affiliated with any university, I'm used to the fact that most content published in academic journals isn't freely accessible to me.  

This morning, though, a particular irony struck me for the first time: it seems the most expensive content out on the Web is the stuff being published by non-commercial, not-for-profit educational institutions, those whose missions are all about spreading knowledge to the world. 

For example, you can go to the Cambridge Journals site and access an article in Modern Asian Studies (just to pick one at random) for the low, low price of $30.00 (yes, in case your missed it, that is more than the price of a typical hardback book) or, better yet, rent it for 24 hours for just $5.99.

And, mind you, this is not for a physical copy of a publication that must be printed and mailed . . . that would be understandable.  This is just for the information itself, delivered at virtually no marginal cost over the Interwebs.  And, there's no authors' costs to consider here, either: unlike commercial periodicals, academic journals don't pay their contributors.  And, accessing the information online would not prevent specialists in the field from subscribing to the journal itself: the article is three years old. 

It did occur to me that harping on the exorbitant single-article price might be a little unfair, since perhaps all the Cambridge University Press is doing is trying to get users to buy a subscription, which would make the content available much less expensively.  How much less?  I have no idea.  In order to even see the subscription prices, apparently, you first have to register for an online account.  When I tried to register for an account, no values were populated in the drop down list for "Country" and the site crashed when I tried to submit my registration.

It wouldn't be worth even complaining about normally: if the price of something is too high, who cares.  Don't buy it.  Nobody owes me free journal articles.  And, if they have a bad web site that prevents people from buying things . . . well, they won't be making much money off their journals. 

But what gets me is that when you visit the "About Us" page for the Cambridge Journals Online, you are presented with a bunch of self-important hooey about their commitment "to advance learning, knowledge, and research worldwide" and how "the dedication of Cambridge University Press to advancing knowledge is visible within our journals, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day" (except when the site crashes, of course.)

And how to do that?  Delivering journal content over the Internet, the "About Us" statement says, "has led to new markets opening up across the world.  These include libraries operating together as consortia, and institutions in the developing world becoming able to access journals for the first time."  [emphasis mine].    "Markets" is strangely jarring amid such high-minded prose about advancing knowledge, and I assume these libraries are forced to operate as consortia because the price of journals is too damn high for them to buy on their own.

There's something oddly Mandarin about it: the ensconcing of knowledge within the expensive, hard-to-access walls of academia, available only to those who are willing to pay an extraordinary amount for it.  Preaching a mission of spreading the noble light of knowledge to the masses while simultaneously making it as costly and difficult as possible to access it.

Here's a piece of advice from the commercial world: if you're really serious about expanding knowledge around the world, make it as cheap and easy to access as possible.  Putting academic articles behind not just pay walls but exceptionally expensive pay walls only guarantees that they will not be read and learning will not be advanced.  

So, I guess I won't be reading that article in Modern Asian Studies.  I hope it doesn't have any groundbreaking information in it.

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