Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Research Access for Graduated Students?

     Today I ran across an article published on the Opinion pages of the Washington Post. Keep the Library open after Graduation The authors argue that it is a bad thing that college students, upon graduation, lose access to all of the professional literature resources that the academic library provides. Based upon this assertion, they propose that "the president can mandate that articles resulting from our $60 billion annual investment in federal non-defense research grants be made freely available within six months". They say that this will quickly 'fix' the problem.  I have known of very few instances where a 'quick fix' actually fixed without creating new problems. 
     The first thought that came to my mind when I read this was "Why does the idea of this (or any) President making 'make it so' pronouncements cause me to become uncomfortable?"  Oh, yeah, we live in a representative democracy, not a autocracy. Tossing around $60 billion should be handled by legislative process, not bureaucratic fiat. 
     Then I got to thinking about the library related problems with this. For one thing, most of the research I've seen on student study patterns says that they don't use the library's resources very often even when they're in school. Why do we suppose that they'll suddenly develop a taste for research once they graduate?  For another thing, all that grant money goes to support the research, not the publishing thereof. Publishers do the work of collecting, editorially reviewing and providing access to research, however the original research was funded. Publishing of professional & trade journals is a business, like any other publishing outfit. So where does the money to pay for publishing come from?  Will the research money be diverted to create new publishing structures to keep the research "free"? This would result in either decreased funding for research, or additional taxes to cover the publishing costs. Do we not mind forcing publishing companies out of business by creating parallel structures with which they cannot compete?  
     Another problem for libraries with this proposal is that not all of our content, for which we pay, comes from publicly funded sources. This proposal does nothing to increase access to this body of research. Most publishers or content providers base their pricing on the size of the user group; the larger the group, the higher the cost. This is accepted as normal by libraries, and makes sense. The current access control method used by most academic libraries that I know of is IP authentication. If a person (faculty, staff, student, alumni) is a registered user on a network, they have access to the resources of that network. By counting the number of registered users, the library can inform the content provider of the size of the user group, and work out pricing accordingly. Introduce a whole lot of suddenly free content, and libraries, with their limited budgets, will be hard pressed not to turn primarily to those less expensive sources, which would lead to loss of revenue to privately-funded content providers. That means they go out of business, and we lose ALL of their content which they can no longer afford to provide. Result: libraries lose, patrons lose.
     Any librarian will tell you that yes, journals subscriptions are expensive. This is not a new problem, it has been an active issue in libraries for decades. If the solution was simply to announce from the White House that 'everything is free now', how come I've never heard a librarian propose that? Because we know that the issue is more complicated than that. I am not fluent in all the complexities of journal pricing structures, but it is not a matter of publishing companies making obscene profits by siphoning off public grant money. There are actual costs involved, as is the case with everything. Those costs will not magically go away. 
     I am not arguing for maintaining the status quo; more access to professional research would be a good thing. I am arguing that what these writers propose would not solve the existing problem and would create new ones. It would be nice if everything were free, but that simply is an unrealistic expectation.


Kobold said...

Ah, it was an Opinion piece in the Washington Post. So, in the opinion of the piece writer, the Finance Fairy should make all University Libraries free - or at least free to post-grad students.

When someone proposes an idea, to which I can see immediate downsides, I always ask, "does the writer, or the group he/she represents, stand to gain from the implementation of this suggestion?" Sadly, and especially with opinion piece writers, the answer is invariably "yes".

Does this make me appear cynical of opinion-piece writers?

Library Bob said...

No, it doesn't make you appear so. The fact that the article appeared on the Opinion pages indicates that the writer has some level of interest in the subject - people are less likely to express opinions on topics in which they are disinterested. I think that your question of motive is completely rational and reasonable. Having something to gain doesn't invalidate anyone's argument, it serves to explain why they're making the argument in the first place. The argument still has to stand on its own merits. Which, in the piece referenced above, I think it does not.