Free the Research! Make Academic Journals Accessible to All

Recently, Laura McKenna, reporter for the Atlantic, wrote about her frustrations in trying to find scholarly articles without the access afforded to people with university affiliations. If you do not possess a college identification card, the hundreds of thousands of full-text articles from databases like JSTOR are either very expensive or inaccessible (McKenna shelled out $38 for a single twelve-page article, but also found that a great many articles were not available, period, to non-academics.)

Why is this so and why does it cost so much? As McKenna points out, “the researcher receives no royalties.” (As an academic myself, I find that particularly disgruntling.)

In her investigation, the reporter found that the answer lies within “the antiquated system of academic publishing.”

Here is how that very old, very slow, ball rolls:

  • Research takes several years. The academic (usually) receives grants and time off.  The article is then submitted to a journal.
  • The actual journals are published in-house, on the campuses. They stay there because it brings the university acclaim.
  • Journals are edited by faculty members, who often get a small stipend and a little time off to do this extra work.
  • The article then goes to an editor, who then passes it on to other faculty with experience in the article’s subject matter.
  • The reviewers put in their two-cents. Article is then returned to the author for revisions.
  • Editor submits that article, with a bunch of others, to a “for-profit publisher.”
  • That publisher “sells the rights to an academic search engine, like JSTOR.”
  • The publisher pays nothing to either the writer or editor.
  • JSTOR “digitizes the material and sells the content back to the university libraries.”
  • The publisher needs to get its money back. It charges a LOT to university libraries to subscribe to its service. It costs some libraries 65% of their total budget. 

McKenna succinctly points out the insanity of this system:

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.

It seems to me (and to McKenna) that the requirement for “print” versions of articles is nonsensical. Without the print requirement, there is NO NEED for a third party. Upload the scholarship yourselves, universities. Free the research!!