Freedom to Learn Requires Free Access

Some things are better free — especially information. But even here in a country that advertises forward thought, our method of disclosing scholarly research remains primitive. It’s well past time we revamp the system of scattered articles in various private journals that charge readers through subscriptions.

Fortunately, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), hope to change the current system with a law that would provide the public with long-deserved free access to scholarly journals six months after their publication date. An article in the New York Times reported that all “articles that contained research financed by federal grants” would then be published online through a government Web site.

According to the National Science Board, the discretionary federal budget for 2006 has set aside $132.3 billion to spend on research and development, approximately 13.6 percent of the total projected budget. With taxpayers funding the majority of national research, it seems logical and fair that they be entitled to view the results of their investment without the additional charge of subscribing to a scholarly journal.

The implementation would also cut university costs by sparing it subscriptions to online scholarly journal databases such as JSTOR. Considering many of the articles published in these databases rely on federally funded research, it is preposterous that a public university like UCSD should have to pay the one-time archive capital fee of $45,000 and the annual archive fee of $8,500 to use the database.

These are only figures for the JSTOR Arts and Sciences I Collection (of which there are several parts), and JSTOR is only one of the many online databases university students use. Students could easily agree that this money is better spent elsewhere.

Moreover, free access to scholarly articles would increase readership of the information, since those previously unwilling to pay the charge would no longer be forced to do so. It’s a simple matter of economics: Decrease the price, increase the demand.

Free online availability will also help to hike readership because many citizens do not have easy access to a library to view these journals due to transportation or time constraints. Coupled with the free propagation of the information and a more simplified process of access, the program bears a real chance for success at reaching a broader audience.

And when it comes to educating the masses and moving forward as a nation through scientific development, the free exchange of ideas is the most vital nutrient for growth. It’s hard to argue against increasing the demand for knowledge.

But the list of positive externalities to such an implementation does not end here.

The Web site’s ability to compile information in one area would also make it easier for readers to sift through various topics, whereas before they would have been forced to subscribe to several subject-specific journals. A consolidated database would also prevent duplicate research and more efficiently allow scientists to build on the ideas of one another.

There’s no end to the positive results an implementation of this policy would produce. In terms of public benefit, it’s imperative that tax money never be poured into a black hole with taxpayers left to wonder about its fate. Rather, a system of accountability for both the government and the researchers needs to be set in place.

Bestowing access to the public for information they pay for helps to prevent the misuse of funding by researchers and holds them accountable for completing quality research that is relevant to the public.

Of course, with change comes opposition. In this case, the prospect of losing business from a decline in subscriptions and ad revenue has journal publishers fretting.

For Howard Garrison, the director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, a new law is reason to worry, as his organization publishes roughly 60 journals, according to an article in the New York Times.

“People won’t be able to gauge how many people will be reading the articles and that has ramifications for advertising, promotion,” Garrison said. “Does it reach 1,000 scientists, 2,000 scientists or 50? If the articles are on a government Web site, your readership may be halved.”

But this is likely a case of profit-seekers making much ado about nothing.

It’s very possible many scientists will want to keep their subscriptions so as to stay up to date with current developments. The rapid pace of science and technological growth is likely to discourage them from waiting six months to view the free articles online, which ought to quell some publisher’s fears.

This is somewhat of a unique case, and opponents might argue that the government providing a service instead of the private sphere will lead to an inefficiency in the market. In addition, all taxpayers and not just the interested few will have to bear the cost of maintaining the online database regardless of their level of interest in scholarly research.

In this situation, the costs of publishing the articles, either through journals or through an online database, is small compared to the over $100 billion budget for research. An online database might also be cheaper to maintain than private journals that require decent staffs.

Whoever pays, the cost will be roughly the same. The only difference is that when the government heads the operation, more will benefit, both from the information itself and from the positive externalities such as technological and scientific innovation.