Cornering the Marketplace of Ideas

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

There was an interesting story in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday on a simple, inexpensive, and effective means of bringing malnourished children back to health. It’s a gooey fortified peanut butter called “Plumpy’nut,” and if you want to know how to make it, here’s the recipe. Unfortunately, because the recipe comes in the form of a patent, you can’t make it unless you are willing to risk a lawsuit.

There are some fascinating issues bound up in this story. The company behind the patent is French, and 90% of its product is purchased by UNICEF. Company officials argue that they license its production in third world countries where the need is greatest; if it were not patented, some huge American agribusiness would likely compete unfairly against third world producers and put them out of business. (US laws favor food aid that exports US-grown surplus crops supported by government subsidies.)

Licensees currently operate in several African countries and the Dominican Republic. In Haiti, where the patent is not registered, Partners in Health (founded by Paul Farmer, profiled in Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains) has encouraged local farmers to make an equivalent foodstuff without a license. The organization views child malnutrition as just one of a constellation of factors that link poverty and poor health. Their mission is “solidarity, not charity;” rather than bring in aid from outside, PIH encourages community-based and holistic solutions to health problems caused by poverty.

As I had just been reading statements by executives working for scholarly societies explaining why they are worried about the possibility of the Federal Research Public Access Act making it through Congress, requiring researchers funded by federal grants to deposit publications with the granting agency for public access, I noticed an interesting parallel in the ways that some scholarly societies approach open access issues. Because they operate in an environment in which packaging and selling access to scholarly research is highly profitable for the private sector, in an industry dominated by a handful of huge multinational conglomerates, the bets on the table are incredibly high. The leadership of the American Anthropological Association has always opposed FRPAA, and in 2006 disbanded an advisory committee that protested its opposition. In 2008, it pulled out of a university press partnership to throw in its lot with a commercial publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, hoping for a better revenue stream. Now it reportedly costs the association between $5,000 and $7,000 per article to publish their journals, a cost that does not factor in the considerable free support provided by authors, reviewers, and their host institutions. The executive director writes “it is essential that we formulate a strategy to sustain AAA’s traditional journal publishing role as we engage with a world that expects scholarly content to be ‘free.’”

I love those quotes around “free.” Scholars are used to free access to the scholarly record. How else could they build on the past? Libraries are to scholarly publishing as UNICEF is to Plumpy’nut. We acquire scholarly work on behalf of others. The production of this work is heavily subsidized by the “free” labor of scholars who are dealing with CV inflation: it takes a wheelbarrow of books and articles to get a loaf of job security these days, security that grows scarcer every year.

The problem is that when we limit access to those who can pay, we are treating information as a commodity, rather than as a commonly-held resource for the public good. The information market is manipulated in ways that cost the public a great deal, but reap huge benefits for private companies. There are enormous inefficiencies built into the system, as well as calculated shortages.

It won’t be easy to reform the current system. Like the relationship between hunger and other factors leading to poverty, the dysfunctional publishing system is enmeshed in a web of related problems: high tuition, low wages and benefits for the non-tenured majority of the professoriate, public hostility toward higher learning, and significant disinvestment in public institutions among them. Though some worry about the end of the “traditional journal publishing role” (which is a misnomer; there’s nothing traditional about outsourcing society publications to multinational corporations), the good news is that there are much more affordable ways for scholarship to have a much broader reach than it once had.This is one problem we actually can solve.

Originally published on September 6, 2011 in Inside Higher Ed.


Leave a Reply