Research paid by public money is often inaccessible to the public

Before I am cut off from the University of Washington’s online library services as a former tuition-paying student (very expensive), I am researching and downloading articles on public health and health issues that I will no longer be able to access without paying exorbitant fees to companies like Netherlands-based Elsevier. Such companies are making a killing selling peer-reviewed articles at high prices, so only fee-paying institutions can access the research that is funded by public dollars.

Elsevier sets a not-too-cheap price for the public to “buy” peer-reviewed articles, often funded by public money and taxpayers.

According to an April 24 article in The Guardian, more than 10,000 academics are already boycotting Elsevier, to protest its business model that sets high prices for peer-reviewed journal articles and access to them. This protest has been dubbed the “cost of knowledge.” The Guardian reports that many university libraries pay more than half of their journal budgets to the big boys of academic publishing, which also includes Springer and Wiley.

One optimistic comment from the editor-in-chief of the prestigious scientific journal Nature notes open access to scientific research articles will “happen in the long run.” Well, I sure hope that happens, but I may not bet on it.

In fact there is a display about this debate in the UW Health Sciences Library (my home away from home for the last two years) on the economics and ethics of charging for scientific articles that publish research funded by taxpayers. Right now, only those who pay fees can download many of these journal articles at such university research libraries like this one. And it is through peer-reviewed articles that academics get tenure, validation, and grant funding and that research enters into the realm greater scientific discourse, and eventually the realm of policy-making and responses by the private sector.

The Guardian reports that prestigious Harvard University prepared a memo to its 2,100 teaching and research staff calling for action, claiming the institution could no longer afford price hikes imposed by the aforementioned publishers. These fees, in effect, are paid by students like me.

I paid nearly $45,000 in tuition and fees to the University of Washington for two years of study, and during that time, tuition was hiked 10% each year in my school, the School of Public Health (the last hike just being approved by the UW Board of Regents the first week of June). So the business model of these publishers is definitely one driver in uncontrolled tuition inflation that is putting an entire generation of graduate students into unsustainable debt. Even the very conservative UW Board of Regents, in their announcement of another round of tuition hikes for undergraduate students, issued a formal declaration expressing “concern for the sustainability of Washington public higher education.”

In my last week of classes at the University of Washington, I partook in a discussion on this topic and shared my concern with a UW School of Public Health faculty member that public health students are being trained to write and publish scholarly articles, many of which may never be published in open sources outside of subscription services like Elsevier. One suggestion I offered was to help prepare the next generations of graduates to help communicate the science and research findings of their field for open-access sources. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already does this in its publications (the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report), and does this well, but more needs to be done by future public health practitioners if a sustainable model can be developed to pay for the research to reach the public via open source platforms.

My bet is the next generation of public health influencers, like my colleague Valerie Pacino, will be blogging as much as they are writing peer-reviewed articles, and having an impact doing it.

2 thoughts on “Research paid by public money is often inaccessible to the public

  1. rsdowens July 17, 2012 / 7:34 am

    Great new development. UK is shaking up academic research: “The government is to unveil controversial plans to make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014, in the most radical shakeup of academic publishing since the invention of the internet.” Harvard already made similar moves. Long overdue, and public funded research should be accessible by the public. We paid for it.

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