Access to Research

What follows is a preliminary version of an article I'm working on. If anyone would care to comment, and perhaps correct any errors I've made, I would much appreciate it. Even if you disagree totally, I'd appreciate knowing. You can comment with the "comment" button or e-mail me directly--jadevito@earthlink.net.

Access to Research

The decision by many academic associations to partner with large publishing houses to print and market their journals may not be in the best interests of the field, the authors of the articles, or students and researchers trying to access this material. Nor does it seem consistent with the notion that information should be available to all without consideration of their financial resources.

If the major purpose of research publication is its dissemination throughout the academic community as well as, perhaps, the general population, then charging sometimes exorbitant fees for the full text article will clearly work against that purpose. The aim of a professional organization such as NCA should be to get its research and theory out to others. Other things being equal, the fewer the restrictions, the more widely the material will likely be used. Psychologist George Miller, in his 1969 APA presidential address, urged his colleagues and the field in general to give psychology away by which he meant that psychologists should make a special effort to make their work available and relevant to everyone. [Speaking in 1969 Miller had no idea (or maybe he did) that articles could be digitized and made available to millions of people throughout the world right on their own desks. But, if he did, he surely would have been on the side of the free content movement advocating open access without restrictions to academic literature.]

This is exactly what the field of communication should be doing—giving its research and theory away. And, since the value of a discipline and its academic journals is measured, at least in part, by how often its theory and research are referenced, it seems only logical to make this research more, not less, readily available. This is even more important for Communication which has so often been called upon to defend its status as a discipline and its academic integrity. The new online journal, Communication Currents (www.communicationcurrents.com) is a step forward but it is not enough. In fact, after Goggling communication terms and concepts almost every day for hours each day since the advent of this new online journal, Communication Currents did not show up once in the thousands and thousands of websites I examined. And while my experience may not be typical—maybe I’m Googling the wrong concepts—one very slim online journal covering popular topics is surely not enough for a national organization and its affiliated organizations that together publish 20 or so journals. We need to consider whether restricting access to communication research and theory is a step backward.

Authors of the articles who want their research cited widely will suffer because fewer people will be willing to pay and go through the registration process for access to the research. It’s often easier to move on, avoid the annoying paywalls, and find articles that are available in full text right there on your computer screen. Recently, for example, I wanted to reprint five statements (a total of 52 words) that appeared as a measure of apprehension in the employment interview in a 1993 article in Communication Research Reports by Ayres, Ayres, and Sharp. Taylor & Francis, the journal’s publisher, wanted a fee of $638. For five sentences! 52 words! [I have no idea how Taylor & Francis arrived at this figure.] Since the book was to be made available free with the purchase of other books, it did not have a budget that could support this kind of permission fee, and so the piece was deleted from the manuscript. Of course, having research reprinted in a textbook is certainly not a researcher’s major goal, nor should it be; but, it seems a nice bonus for researchers to know that their work is being read by students numbering in the 10s of thousands.

Further, authors contributing articles to QJS, CM, CE and the like are probably unaware that the printer (and these organizations are really printers not publishers) of the journal to which they submit their research is the one in control of the article (once it’s published) and is the one that will determine the price it charges people to read the research. Professional organizations like NCA do maintain certain rights and can, in some cases, override these permission fees; yet, the control is still largely in the hands of the journal printers. But, when NCA partners with one printer (say, Taylor & Francis) the printer is given a virtual monopoly on communication research which, if examined more carefully, would probably be found to be in violation of Department of Justice regulations.

For good or ill, the current academic system requires academics to publish in the field’s journals; they have no choice but to offer their work free of charge to a publisher that will then earn income from selling access to the article. But, while the individual researcher has no choice, academic associations do. NCA, for example, has the choice to partner with these publishers and thus restrict the work of its own members to those who will pay for it or grant wider access and in fact encourage the giving away of our research and theory.

And while it may be argued that the interests of national academic associations are consistent with the interests of their members, this may not be true in all cases and certainly seems questionable here. The young assistant professor is not interested in how much money the association makes but with the access that others will have to his or her research so that it might get cited widely and thus eventually help secure a promotion or tenure.

Students doing research will likely not have the financial resources to purchase the articles and even though many colleges will make these articles available to students, the archived articles may not be included. And depending on the college’s budget, the journals in question may not be available either. And as a result students are likely to rely on the abstracts (which are generally available without charge). Writers (especially those not affiliated with a college) doing research are in the same situation.

Colleges pay for the databases to which their students are given access. Some colleges provide their students with more extensive databases than others. One of the problems here is that once these large publishers gain more control over a discipline’s journals, their prices are likely to rise creating an even greater information divide between those colleges that have the money and those that don’t. And of course the prices for these databases often figure into the tuition charged which does nothing to lessen the culture gap between the haves and the have-nots. Harvard students have greater access to information than students at Ulster County Community College, for example. Small private colleges and their students suffer disproportionately since there is seldom the kind of money available that is needed to purchase access to these databases. Of course, students in developing countries will suffer even more and will never be able to acquire the information they’ll need to become truly educated and truly competitive. These are problems that NCA, and similar professional organizations, actively help to create.

Another issue which needs to be considered is the philosophical one, the degree to which information should be free or should come with a price tag, often a very high tag. Philosophically (and perhaps legally as well) it is not at all clear by what right an organization takes possession of research it publishes, sells it to one of these journal printers such as Taylor & Francis, and pays the author—not anything that the author negotiates but what the professional organization negotiates, or nothing at all. The college or university that provides a reduced teaching load for a professor to conduct and publish research gets nothing and yet it, in many ways, paid for the research. Similarly, the various government and private agencies that fund research get nothing in return. Of course, both the college and the funding agency get the prestige from the published research, but they get no money which, it might be reasoned, could be recycled to support more research. None of the journal printers to my knowledge actively fund research; it is purely a profit-making undertaking. And while there is nothing wrong with profit making, we need to wonder about the legitimacy of making money from selling information when the actual information developer, forced by the system to publish in these very journals, gets nothing or close to nothing.

All this is not to say that there are no advantages to such partnering. Certainly NCA will profit financially to some degree (I have no idea to what extent, however). And publishing journals is obviously expensive and the cost of these publications must be taken into consideration. And these mega-publishers do have the facilities and expertise to digitize the articles and create composite databases from which this research can be accessed with ease. But, the easy way out—allowing the printer to control the published research (to a large degree, though certainly not entirely)—may be a cost too high to pay given that (1) the primary mission of an academic association is to disseminate its findings; (2) the needs and desires of those who conduct, write, and publish is to get their research disseminated as widely as possible and not just to those willing to pay for it; (3) the needs of students, researchers, and the population in general are to access the research and theory of a discipline; and (4) the philosophical question of whether information should be free to all or restricted to those with the money to pay for it.

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