The Ivory Firewall: A Meditation on the Digital Divide in Academia
To say that the digital revolution has utterly changed access to knowledge would be the understatement of the millennium. Thanks to online magazines, encyclopedias, and books, it is now possible to spend your entire waking life (such as it is) cramming for that appearance on Jeopardy. But the Internet has done more than revolutionize the ownership of knowledge by putting entire libraries’ worth of useless information at everyone’s fingertips: For scholars, it has made access to online resources such as JSTOR (Journal STORage), a repository of digitized articles from academic journals, absolutely indispensable. These sources are qualitatively different from what the masses get to read: Compared to the rich, peer-reviewed, and extensively-researched and -documented foie gras of the academic world, what comes up in a Google search seems like so much generic store-brand potato chips: Filling, but really low-quality.
Yet, the entities that administer such databases, such as Ithaka (the not-for-profit that runs JSTOR) and Brepols (a Belgian publisher that owns a number of scholarly resources) are operating on a nineteenth-century model that reserves access to information to the cognoscenti. In order to use their products (which are, as I’ll discuss, really someone else’s products), you usually have to be affiliated with an academic institution with the deep pockets to pay their access fees. Limited JSTOR access, for instance, is $40,000 per year, which is difficult for many smaller schools.
Cui bono? Certainly not those whose labor is being sold. Academics don’t get paid much for writing and reviewing books and articles—we do it because it’s part of the job description and because we love what we do. Most of us would be happier for a wider audience. Of course, from the publishers’ end, there’s an opportunity cost for publishing, server space, administration, etc., but it’s difficult to see why it is necessary to charge so much to essentially redistribute other people’s alienated labor. Nor is this trade subject to the external control of the market—it’s a necessary service that comes out of institutional budgets.
This last fact frustrates the hell many of those who aren’t in mainstream academia: Independent scholars, unemployed or under-employed Ph.Ds, and those between jobs or who have left the academy but still engage in scholarly activity. The access plan is thus out of step with the current realities, where very few go from a Ph.D program to a full-time academic job, but rather find themselves in a sort of limbo in which they should be maximizing their chances of landing a job by publishing as much as possible, which, in turn, requires journal access. This is especially annoying when an article that seems perfect for your current book project teases you by coming up as Google search result, but is inaccessible behind a pay wall, leaving you with no way to get at the tantalizing morsel of information.
Worse, it seems as if the resources necessary to do the work of academe are being controlled by the haves—rich, first-world research universities who can pay, the rest of the world be damned. The scale of the global demand for information was made clear when my Fordham user account was hacked a couple of years ago, probably when I was dumb enough to log in using an unsecure WiFi connection at an airport. What did the malefactors want? Money? E-mail addresses to spam? No—knowledge. Within hours, my username and password for the academic databases were spread on Arabic and Chinese-language sites. The multiple database logins were how the problem was caught, and it was a massive headache for me to get my access restored (I was in Paris at the time). Still, even if they were thieves, their motives were kind of commendable.
Now, I don’t mean to vilify an entire industry by this. There is no intentionality here, but rather simply a great deal of institutional inertia. The scholarly Scrooges are well aware of their miserly image, and are trying to do damage control. As I was sending out inquires around academic listservs to research this article, I was pleasantly surprised when, Kristen Garlock, a representative from Ithaka, the parent company of JSTOR, contacted me personally. (I had earlier sought to contact them, to no response.) Kristen was extremely responsive to criticism, and answered my questions at length.
“JSTOR’s price structure and access approach reflect the original aims of the service and the community it was designed to support,” she explained. “Our initial expectation was that JSTOR might be useful to large research libraries with significant print holdings. It has turned out that its value reaches much farther and that many academic and other institutions participate to gain access to collections of material they have never held in print and could never afford nor able to obtain in print at this time.”
Though claiming that their price structure is stepped to institutions’ various sizes and missions, Kristen also told me in her e-mail (which I won’t quote at length, since the prose styling was similar to the insomnia-curing bit of corporatespeak I quoted above) that Ithaka also has plans in place to increase access by introducing a tiered price structure, giving access through learned societies (which publish many journals in the first place), giving free access to not-for-profits in the developing world, beginning to allow alumni access in certain universities, and creating some sort of individual access for independent scholars by the end of this year.
As some colleagues have pointed out to me, there are also workarounds: In the U.S., you can often access JSTOR through public libraries, public universities (though usually on-site access only), and by joining the aforesaid learned societies (although rarely for free, and often at great inconvenience). If you know what you need, there’s public interlibrary loan, but then you can’t search the databases to see what might come up. Of course, if you’re in a rural area, an inner city with a gutted library system that can’t afford the steep fees, or two hours from the nearest university, you’re out of luck.
So, at least one of the companies involved seems to be sensitive to just what the situation looks like to the public, and things are being done to remedy the situation. The question I want to raise, though, isn’t so much if these solutions will be adequate, but rather if we need to rethink the entire philosophy behind the business model. Who owns scholarship, and how much can they get away with charging for access to it? Is this something that should be left up to private industry? What if the EU or one of its member states wants to democratize access (far more likely than the US government doing it)? What if Google buys up all these resources and distributes them for free?
Most importantly, will access to technological utopia spread to the knowledge that “counts”—not the Wikipedias and crank AOL hometown pages of the world, but the peer-reviewed journals that represent the best of human knowledge? “Anyone can edit” has long been the motto of those who seek a democratization of knowledge, but the fact is that human knowledge is arranged in hierarchies. In-depth research, expert opinions, and the vetting of ideas by scholars—the sort of things found in academic journals—are qualitatively different from the wisdom of the crowd. However, as it stands now, these resources, given free or at low cost by their creators, are cost-prohibitive and available only to a few. For the digital revolution to progress, this needs to change. Rather than “anyone can edit,” a better battle cry would be “anyone can access.”
Next time: Some ideas for the reform of academic publishing
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