Should Scientific Information Be Reserved for the Wealthy?

January 21, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Bookshelf in an academic library
Photo credit: Open Grid Scheduler/Grid Engine/Flickr

Scientific research is being treated as a commodity.

It used to be that when you had a college paper to write, the first place you went was to the library. Some people still do, but journal databases are now available online, and you can do most of your research from the comfort of your own home.

However, according to Canadian Science Publishing, “Due to consolidation in the scientific publishing industry, five major publishers now publish 53% of scientific papers in the natural and medical sciences, forming an oligarchy that dominate smaller non-profit publishers.” They offer subscriptions to libraries in large bundles, but with ever increasing costs, it is becoming more and more difficult for libraries to afford the fees.

It isn’t just the smaller or poorer libraries that are having trouble affording the access that they, their students and their faculty need. The University of Konstanz in Germany, the Université de Montréal in Canada, Cornell University, and even Harvard University have had to cancel bundled serials contracts.

According to The Guardian, Harvard is going so far as to encourage their faculty to publish in open-access journals and refrain from journals that place research behind a paywall: “A memo from Harvard Library to the university's 2,100 teaching and research staff called for action after warning it could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which bill the library around $3.5m a year.”

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Despite these difficulties, researchers are resourceful. The #icanhazpdf hashtag has been popping up on Twitter. Using it, researchers have been asking each other for and sharing particular articles they need. It works as a temporary situation, but it violates copyright laws and tells administrators that they don’t need to increase library budgets because their staff members don’t really need the databases anyways. Furthermore, if more and more schools are forced to cancel their subscriptions, there won’t be anyone left to provide the PDFs.

“If you can't get access to the literature, it hurts research,” David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, said to The Guardian. However, it goes further than that. Giving the public access to research helps them develop science literacy skills, provides them with more information if they read about a scientific topic and aren’t convinced by the evidence provided, and may even help engage future scientists.

In a newsletter published by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication argues that “asking members of the public to pay fees to read scientific articles is forcing them to pay twice for the same research,” since they already paid for it through their tax dollars.

What do these costs say about how we, as a society, treat scientific research as a commodity and how we seem to value money over knowledge?

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