Open access to academic journals!

I wanted to read “Do Effects of Early Child Care Extend to Age 15 Years? Results From the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development”, but it’s behind a pay wall.

Millions of educators and parents could benefit from this research, but a one-year subscription costs $609 ($670 if you want print AND online access)! This is outrageous and a waste of extremely valuable research conducted by professors (many with government grants), not Wiley, which merely collects the research and prints it out.

Before the Internet, academic journals charging heavily for subscriptions made some sense. And university libraries paid those heavy subscriptions because they had no choice.

But the Internet has driven the cost of publishing academic journal articles to zero. A journal’s referees are usually professors who receive no extra pay to referee articles in their specialized field. And putting a PDF online for millions to download costs virtually nothing.

So why are so many academic articles still behind very steep pay walls?

Publishing in high-priced journals limits an article’s potential audience. That should be unattractive to professors (and grad students) whose career prospects and influence depend on how many people read their research.

Prestigious journals can still charge a lot because they’re prestigious.

The arrival of The Public Library of Science and similar free, open-source journals is exciting, but it hasn’t yet forced the prestigious, expensive journals to charge less exorbitant prices for putting other people’s words in ink-on-paper format (or even electronic format). Publishers of these journals are, effectively, adding no value. They’re simply receiving what economists term “rents” because their journals have become prestigious… even though their prestige is due entirely to the articles' authors and referees, not the publisher’s actions.

Apparently, academia can’t solve this chicken-and-egg “lock-in” problem.

So, I’m glad to see a movement to pass “The Federal Research Public Access Act”:

Every year, the federal government funds tens of billions of dollars in basic and applied research. Most of this funding is concentrated within 11 departments/agencies (e.g., National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy). The research results typically are reported in articles published in a wide variety of academic journals. From NIH funding alone, it is estimated that about 65,000 papers are published each year. The Federal Research Public Access Act proposes to make manuscripts reporting on federally funded research publicly available within six months of publication in a journal.

Even though this would apply only to government-funded research, it would rapidly change the playing field by shifting many high-quality articles to free journals, quickly boosting those journals' prestige while lowering the traditional journals' prestige… which is why, I’m sure, academic publishers are lobbying Washington so hard to maintain their monopoly power.

Free, open access to academic journals could have a profound impact in countless fields. In education alone, it could make a huge, positive difference, given the great advances being made today in understanding how children learn best (so different from how most American schools currently operate) and how best to use technology to boost student learning.

Posted by James on Monday, May 17, 2010