Knowledge – An Increasingly Unaffordable Commodity

I'm sure many of you have searched (e.g., on Google) for information on a research topic or method, and succeeded in finding the articles or book chapters that are the prime sources of such information. However, when you click on the search-entry listing you find that in order to obtain the needed article you would have to pay some outrageous price for a single article or an even more outrageous price to subscribe to the journal's archives? This is not a problem for faculty and students enrolled at most larger colleges and universities, or for those who work at big companies and research institutes, all of which have online journal access. But what about the rest of us -- all those students who graduate and no longer have access to their university's online services, people in small businesses who can’t afford the fees for articles or online journal access (which includes hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of independent consultants), and millions of private citizens who just may want to pursue an interest in a subject? The fees for these services have become so exorbitant that many smaller colleges, technical institutes, for-profit universities, and non-profit foundations have had to cancel or drastically limit their journal access subscriptions.

Has knowledge become something that is disseminated on the basis of wealth? It certainly seems so from my vantage point. This basis for access to the repositories of knowledge seems to undermine the democratic principles of equal opportunity and the free flow of ideas and information. Moreover, much of the research reported in these journal articles was conducted with government funding. How is it that such research ends up being a commodity that is apportioned on the basis of having the ability to pay for it? This is a good example of where the interests of free enterprise and capitalism run counter to the public interest.

I would be very interested in hearing your views on what can be done to expand public access to scientific and professional journals, and to documents in repositories.There are a few examples of freely-accessible repositories of journal articles, such as ERIC and JSTOR. However, the coverage of these repositories is spotty and limited, undoubtedly due to the threat they pose to the profits of the pay-to-read services. Could public funding be provided to expand the coverage of these free services? Another possibility might be to enable the Library of Congress, which has access to all publications, to offer free online access to its entire collection. This could probably be done for the cost of, say, one aircraft carrier, and might do more to advance the cause of peace than an armada of such ships.