Monday, 19 September 2011

The price of knowledge

Has it ever crossed your mind, when reading yet another journalistic misinterpretation of some historical/biological/sociological/anything-ogical research, to check the facts for yourself? Good luck. Follow up any of those references to proper peer-reviewed academic research, and you will find yourself blocked from the publisher’s website until you cough up a sum often well in excess of the price you’d pay for an entire novel (and not one on the 3 for 2 table).

The hardest part of leaving academia for me was sacrificing an authentic username and password that would permit me to access every academic journal subscribed to by the institutions at which I studied. I may have been writing philosophy, but I read papers on neuroscience, cognitive psychology, game theory, economics, even quantum physics occasionally – though I stared in those in panic more than actually reading them. When I’d had my fill of neurons and prisoner’s dilemma permutations, I could check up on the latest thought on feminism, witchcraft in modern Europe, techniques in psychotherapy, drugs trials, new interpretations of myth…

There is research of varying quality going on in every domain you can think of, but the best of it, at least in theory, gets into these journals: peer-reviewed research and thought on the cutting edge of their discipline. What does not get into them is the curious nose of any human being not currently registered at an academic institution. At least not without paying through that curious nose first.

This looks to me like a crime against curiosity and auto-didactic zeal, especially when you combine the inaccessible nature of this material with the mangling it undergoes at the hands of the more accessible popular press.

I for one did not feel that I had had my fill by the end of my undergraduate degree, so I took advantage of a government grant and continued learning through an MA. I did this out of a pure desire to learn and enhance my intellectual engagement. However, in anticipation of the huge increases in the cost of undergraduate degrees, fear is already being expressed about how many of those students will feel up to carrying the debt albatross through another year of expensive cerebral development.

A graduate who still has friends in higher education can always borrow that precious password, as I have done, if they want to continue reading the best new research first hand. What of those who, having been to university a long time ago or not at all, have no idea that this resource even exists? It is pretty much invisible to anyone outside the ivory towers, and even if they hear of its existence, it is a complex and daunting briar that winds itself around the ivory fundaments.

George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre both recently highlighted this issue, but more of us need to make more noise about this particularly elitist aspect of academic (non)-access, especially against the current backdrop of fee increases. If this research were publicly accessible, along with some of the course materials already being shared online by institutions such as Berkeley, self-education at degree level would become feasible for those with genuine interest, motivation, but without £30k to spare. I have a hunch that all of us would learn a lot more as a result.


  1. I agree.

    And surely there ought to be affordable solutions in academic ebook services that could relatively easily be made available to the general public. The technical solutions are already there and there are also some good commercial models that don't require the libraries to buy books outright but instead to pay a licence fee for users and 'read-clicks'. This allows for a massive range of resources to be available without the need for capital outlay.

    I was heartened by my recent visit to Leicester University library - an awe inspiring new build facility - that it was open at least in part to the general public, on an affordable subscription basis (about £40 a year if I remember correctly)

  2. Where I live, all academic libraries offer some access to the general public, I pay about $40 per year for borrowing fees and can check out most materials. I agree with you but the issue is the licensing agreements the university must make in order to secure materials and databases for students and faculty. Many libraries also participate in interlibrary loan programmes that permit borrowing by the public as long as the individual carries a library card,

  3. Yes, I cheat...a lecturer friend lets me use his pass...
    But I feel it is so wrong...public money sets up all this and then the people who pay for it are excluded.