Knowledge Hoarding, or Academic Miserliness

This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately and probably deserves to be addressed in a proper essay rather than a quickly composed  blog post, but here goes.

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Online libraries restricted to public access

I am currently an adjunct teaching at a tiny, private school [read: part-time, underpaid & few resources]. This semester I am teaching an advanced undergraduate level course. They are awesome students and I am constantly amazed at their dedication. One of the things I am trying to emphasize is the importance of reliable, peer-reviewed sources. When I was still in grad school and had access to my huge university’s online databases I did not notice this problem so much, but this semester has been exceeding frustrating for both myself and my students. Trying to find relevant, reliable and peer-reviewed sources that are ACCESSIBLE feels nigh impossible most days. My school’s databases are limited and hard to navigate, therefore I often use Google Scholar to find citations. This week, it took me at least three times as long as it should have to find a couple of relevant articles for my class* because every time I came across a citation online that looked perfect, it was only available on Jstor, to which I do not have access. Well, to be fair, Jstor has made a limited number of their articles available, but when I just searched through this limited selection, I could find nothing relevant.

(*I eventually gave up my online search and turned to my private bookshelf. There I found an appropriate article that I ended up using.)

Jstor’s subscription is incredibly costly, which is why my school does not subscribe. This means that my students are at a disadvantage because they do not have access to a huge chunk of academic knowledge that would help them become more successful learners.

Whose fault is this?

Is it Jstor’s? Is it my school’s? I do not mean to single out Jstor and I do not mean to find fault with my school. I actually think this is a much bigger and more sophisticated problem than my school not shelling out the money for a Jstor subscription. After all, Jstor is useful for my subject-area but may not be as useful for another. To how many of these exorbinantly priced databases should my school be expected to subscribe? Again, to be fair, despite Jstor’s limited public access, it grants some measure of public access, which is at least a step in the right direction. (And, apparently even Jstor is a victim of this system: see the latter half of Ludlow’s Chronicle of Higher Education article.)

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All that knowledge hidden away from the general public

I think about how hard it is for my students, who do have limited access and are currently in the process of pursuing their education…how hard it is for me, who has already paid my dues to the education system for the “right” to have access to knowledge (and paid a pretty penny, I might add)…Do only those who are currently paying to pursue learning have the “right” to knowledge? What about those of the general public who just want to better themselves? Those who just want to keep up-to-date on the latest scientific advances? Those in the developing world who want to learn, too? Those who want to pursue learning for learning’s sake? Do only those who have the money to pay exorbitant prices have the “right” to access that knowledge?

Well, you may say, the cost of publishing is not cheap. I would respond with, you are not wrong, but considering that the cost of publishing is the only overhead of most journals, why in the world does someone not associated with a subscription-paying university have to pay $30 for access to a single article?  Well, surely there are people who run the journal, right? And, who does the peer-reviewing? And, well, the authors of the research deserves something, right? In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I am not exactly sure how the editorial structure behind contemporary journals work. However, I do know that sometimes journal editors are university professors who do not get paid for their work. I also know that most (if not all) professors who peer-review articles do not get paid to do so. I know that all those academics who publish in those journals also do not get paid for it. Apparently the scholarly journal scene has been transformed over the years as smaller presses get bought out by big, for-profit publishing companies. And that, sometimes, those big for-profit companies charge authors for the right to publish their articles elsewhere, despite never having paid them in the first place. Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor currently teaching at George Mason University, wrote a very enlightening piece on this very topic for the Chronicle of High Education last year.

So, where does this leave us?

Well, one could point in the direction of Aaron Swartz, whose death truly breaks my heart. I believe his civil disobedience should be held in high esteem and should inspire us to action. “There is no justice in following unjust laws,” he stated in his Open Access Manifesto. He called this problem “the private theft of public culture.” The knowledge that is largely produced through funding provided by university tuition or public sources (such as NSF, Fulbright, or NEA, to name a few) is held captive by the corporate monster interested only in achieving maximum profit for its shareholders. My hope is that the circumstances of his life and death serve to bring public awareness to this issue.

Thus far there has been a lot of press surrounding Aaron Swartz’ civil disobedience and the instigating problem. Another illuminating article (mentioned above) published just a few days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education by philosophy professor, Peter Ludlow, points out that this restriction of knowledge is a relatively recent phenomenon. That, in the past, publishing with an academic publisher meant the article would receive a wide readership. With the wonder that is our digital technology this should be easier than ever. Why then is it so difficult for me and my students to find appropriate articles? Ludlow sums it up nicely: “The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the highest bidders.”

How am I compelled to action?


The academic monster greedily hoarding knowledge

Well, considering that I am a cog in the wheel of academia, that is an important, but difficult question to answer. Currently I am not in a position to do much. When I was publishing my dissertation with UMI, however, I specifically made some of my decisions based on my belief that academic knowledge should be freely accessible to anyone who desires it. The knowledge between the pages of my dissertation does not belong to me and moving forward I would be highly uncomfortable profiting from it, but I suppose that is a discussion for a different post.

While it is still on my to-do list, the culminating action of my doctorate will be to send copies of my dissertation to everyone person who was instrumental in my research. They will most likely further disseminate it. Whether or not my dissertation is worthy of such dissemination is a different story, but the thought that I will have facilitated in the transmission of that knowledge makes me happy.

Should I ever publish my dissertation as a book, if I keep any profits it will only be to do further research. Otherwise, I plan on donating my royalties to an organization related to my field. In book format, I suppose access issues are slightly different. Nevertheless, if at all possible, I intend on making my academic books freely accessible in PDF format.

Looking forward, I do intend to continue with my academic pursuits. This means that I will be confronted with decisions regarding this issue in the future. Unfortunately, I will need tenure at some point (assuming it is not true that this model is going by the wayside), which makes me a slave to the academic publishing monster. So I certainly foresee some difficult decisions ahead.

Often I get discouraged when I am confronted with injustices such as this, but this is part of my corner of the world. And, for once, I feel like I will be in a position one day to make a difference. But, hopefully, when that day comes it will no longer be necessary.

Knowledge should not be possessed and hidden away; it should be freely accessible to help make this world a better place.
Categories: Academia, Miscellaneous, Research | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Knowledge Hoarding, or Academic Miserliness

  1. Sylvan

    I’m really concerned about academic hoarding, and generally the negative effect the concept of intellectual property has had on the knowledge. It feels like we’re moving in a direction counter to the values that led to libraries and public education. Ideas are to be shared, discussed, tested, modified, this is how we grow. It is especially troubling when entities like JSTOR bundle the public domain and peddle it for a profit (technically they are not-for-profit, but they need to go non-profit).

    An idea which is freely given has more value than any which is smothered in darkness and doled out for a price.

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