No Problem!

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

Late last week, hearings were held in Congress on whether federal agencies that pour billions of tax dollars into research should follow the National Institutes of Health’s example and require that researchers provide a copy of the published research findings to the agencies within twelve months so it can be made publicly accessible.

In case you haven’t noticed, library budgets are being gobbled up by the ever-rising cost of subscriptions to journals and databases, most of it temporary electronic access to research that gets turned off like the lights if we can no longer scrape together the rent. This increased budgeting for databases and journals means we have less money to buy things we actually own, like books, and university presses have to trim their lists because the market is shrinking, and good books without an obvious market have to go unpublished, and the next time we suddenly need to have thoughtful long-form analysis of things that nobody is interested in – like, say, some fringe group in an obscure part of the world originally published by Yale in 2000 – we’ll just have to hang on until somebody gets around to researching and writing that book that suddenly has a market.

But don’t worry about it! According to Alan Adler of the Association of American Publishers, we have no problem! He said in his testimony, “unlike many other challenges our country faces and problems policy makers must solve, there is no crisis in the world of scholarly publishing, or in the dissemination of scientific materials.”

Sure, taxpayers are entitled to federally funded research, but “peer-reviewed articles published in scholarly articles are not research.” No, they are the intellectual property of publishers, because they’re the ones who spend all kinds of money to make sure the science in them is accurate.

I’m not kidding. He actually said that. It’s publishers who make sure the research is “accurate, new, and important.” That peer review you do for free? They have to spend millions to make sure you do it right.

So we have no problem, and taxpayers have to right to this stuff because it’s not research. And shut up about page charges. We don’t want to confuse these poor legislators.

However, if we post this stuff online, we do have a problem, a really scary problem, because it could fall into the hands of foreigners. National security is at risk! I’m not quite sure how the current, problem-free environment, in which corporations (many of them foreign-owned) are happy to provide this not-research to anyone willing to pay, keeps U.S. scientific research out of the hands of foreigners, or what problem sharing scientific information with people outside our borders creates. But apparently we’re in big trouble if we stop selling it and let foreigners have it for free.

Somebody is going to have to do something about those damned physicists. On the day before these hearings were being held, they went and decided to let every public library in America have free access to their journals. And they’re even talking about doing the same in other countries. Okay, maybe it’s not rocket science – or wait, maybe it is!

All snark aside, I find these logic-defying arguments based on faulty reasoning, misrepresentation of how the process works, and appeals to anxiety about foreigners even more angering than the fact that in 2009 Elsevier made a billion dollars in profits with a tidy 35% profit margin. Wasn’t that the very same year that saw enormous hardship in higher education, with layoffs, rising tuition, and libraries scrambling to manage huge budget cuts? What a weird coincidence.

But don’t worry about it. There is no crisis. You whiners have plenty of access to information. All you have to do is buy it.

Published originally on August 2, 2010, at Inside Higher Ed.

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