Paywalls have no room in education

Max Marcello | Staff Writer

For students and academic professionals, the pursuit of high-quality, scholarly work is an imperative, transcending the boundaries of their respective fields. Few frustrations can match the exasperation of uncovering a pertinent and potent scholarly article concealed behind the insidious veil of a paywall.

Initially, this paywall was a mere inconvenience. However, as I continued to hit paywall after paywall, my frustration gave way to curiosity. How could this research that was being subsidized by government resources cost so much to access?

Federal financing began in earnest at the dawn of the 20th century but did not escalate until the tumultuous years of the Cold War, as the government enthusiastically fueled the growth of “big science.” This in turn produced multiple groundbreaking developments ranging from NASA spinoff technology to the construction of Silicon Valley through defense R&D spending. These factors, among others, catalyzed the transformation of our nation from a growing industrial power into the unrivaled global titan of innovation and research, trailblazing the path to our modern world.

Yet, here lies the aforementioned disconnect. The vast pool of dollars funding this monumental research mostly originates from government resources. Under our current system, this public financing finds its way into the coffers of profit-seeking enterprises and universities charging access to research whose cost was reduced in part due to federal grants. This vicious cycle keeps a substantial body of work out of the hands of the very public that, unwittingly or not, bankrolls it and spits in the face of the purpose of the research university, which espouses the goals of facilitating a meeting of the minds and making knowledge available to all.

In our contemporary era, the integrity of this system is unraveling, tainted by the corrosive effects of unchecked avarice. University libraries are compelled to pour vast sums into the procurement of access to databases and scholarly journals.

These very repositories of knowledge are, ironically, built upon the financial bedrock of public resources. Any research birthed from the womb of public grants ought to be a beacon, unburdened by monetary constraint. The current system, where research funded by the public is subsequently harnessed for private gain, defies the principles of transparency and equity. It stands as a testament to the incongruity of our times and as an area worth reform. It is a disquieting proposition, one that few people, philosophers or scientists would champion openly – the commodification of knowledge, a betrayal of the public trust. Under this system, the government, and by extension the public, reaps no discernible, fiscal nor educational benefits from this transaction. Thus, I contend that any research conducted with the patronage of public coffers should in turn benefit those who financed it.

In making this declaration, I do not advocate for the nationalization of discovery or invention arising from universities and research enterprises. Instead, I assert that the fruits of this labor must be disseminated to the public, with due consideration for their rights. In this crusade for equitable knowledge access, I exempt the sanctity of copyright and patent laws. Under existing copyright laws which explicitly exempt material for educational purposes, every student, every curious mind, who yearns to partake in the intellectual banquet that their very tax dollars nourished should have unfettered access. Adopting a more open system will carry significant benefits for both countering erroneous statements made by numerous uncles during Thanksgiving arguments and students seeking access for more data than their university or public library has to offer.

Critics of the proposed system contend that it would serve as a deterrent to research and hinder collaborative endeavors. They believe that by diverting a substantial portion of funding from the primary sources supporting universities and other organized research institutions, the capacity to engage in potentially life-saving research would be severely curtailed. Furthermore, they assert that the system might erode the very incentives that drive these institutions to strive for excellence.

The essence of this proposal is not to thwart the progress of profit-oriented technological and scientific ventures, but rather to break down the financial barriers that presently obstruct access to scholarly knowledge. It is imperative to clarify that research or journal entries originating from non-public sources would remain exempt from the protocols mandating public access.

Few would object to public spending on seminal research, especially considering if this research, although important, would not sustain private funding. My concern is the lack of accountability and profiteering from taxpayer contributions.

Yet I do contend that there are profits to be made, not in the form of monetary gain but instead reaping the fruits of living in a more informed country. By making information more available and accessible, all Americans regardless of education levels can fully immerse themselves and benefit from the knowledge that has been produced from the coffers we all pay into.