“Free” Scholarship

Matthew Yglesias has this to say over on ThinkProgress today:

Academic Work Should Be Distributed For Free: Sale of access to journals helps finance scholarship, but it also raises the cost of scholarship. If everything was distributed for free, the whole exact same enterprise could be undertaken with no net financial loss. But there would be huge potential gains.

Both governments and private donors expend a good deal of funds on subsidizing the production of scholarly knowledge. That’s an excellent idea. Increasing the overall stock of human knowledge is important. But for most of the same reasons that producing scholarship is important, making it available is also important. Open access is important, and I’m glad to see people fighting for it.

I fail to see how distributing scholarship for free would result in the enterprise of producing high quality, peer-reviewed scholarship “could be undertaken with no net financial loss.” I am a huge proponent of making high quality scholarship as widely available as possible; we need to combat the abundance of poor work that is readily available to the public. However, good scholarship takes resources including time, teaching freedom, money, and other means of support.

To be sure, increasing the overall stock of human knowledge is a vastly important endeavor, but speaking as someone who has been immersed in the world of academia and scholarship for the better part of a decade now and is about to begin a PhD, I see the dearth of resources that are out there that encourage and enable the production of scholarship that is truly worthy of being widely available.

Both governments and private donors expend a good deal of funds on subsidizing the production of scholarly knowledge.

This is true in some fields – namely the science, medical, and technology related fields – but it is not necessarily true in other fields, specifically liberal arts. The government is willing to fund research that produces technology to help it win wars or answer energy questions, but much less quick to open its checkbook when the research is religious identity formation in the ancient world or the use of social commentary in William Blake’s works (Aside: Take the time to read Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, you’ll be better for it). So, if your goal really is to “increas[e] the overall stock of human knowledge,” then you bear some of the responsibility of helping those of us who are producing the scholarship find new, different, and sustainable means of funding research and other scholarly and academic endeavors. No scholarship, no matter the price tag put on it for the end user is “free.”

Our country’s renewed focus on math, science, and technology bodes well for our future standing against other countries that have already passed us on those fronts. This focus will allow the US to remain a world leader in the areas that pay the most and secure our place as “the world’s superpower,” on a variety of levels. There, however, negative consequences to this narrow focus.

By shining the proverbial light on science and technology we are pushing liberal arts and social sciences into the shadows. Our country may well be able to produce the best new tech gadgets and design the most fuel efficient vehicles, but we must ask ourselves if we want this at the expense of devaluing literature, sociology, psychology, religious studies, journalism, etc.

A tech based country may be fun to live in, but if it comes at the enormous cost of pushing so many other worthy areas of life and academia to the background is it worth living in?

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