Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
US taxpayers pay three times over for scientific research.
There’s a rumour circulating that US President Donald Trump is about to give the public unencumbered access to publicly-funded research. This is huge.
Via their tax dollars, ordinary Americans fund academic research to the tune of billions. But paywalls have long prevented most people from accessing that research.
The system works like this. Professors receive research grants. Articles describing their research findings get published in academic journals. Journals charge university libraries enormous sums in subscription fees – on the understanding that only members of the university will be permitted to read these journals.
By then, taxpayers have paid for this research three times over:
labour costs (professor salaries)
raw research dollars (grants)
university library funding
If you’re the parent of a child who plays contact sports such as US football, and you’d like to educate yourself, you’ll pay through the nose a fourth time.
Mild traumatic brain injury is described as “a major public health problem in the United States and worldwide” in a paper published three years ago in the journal Advances in Ophthalmology and Optometry. That journal is owned by Elsevier, a Netherlands-based publisher which owns approximately 3,000 journals worldwide.
In order to read what doctors employed by publicly-funded US universities have written about this serious health issue, Elsevier demands you fork over $36 plus tax.
That is a scandal. Especially when the extraordinarily lucrative nature of academic publishing is taken into account. Here’s a quote from a 2017 investigation:
Despite the narrow audience, scientific publishing is a remarkably big business. With total global revenues of more than £19bn, it weighs in somewhere between the recording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable. [bold added]
Let that sink in. Nearly as big as the film industry. But far more profitable.
Last February, the University of California decided to stop paying $11 million in yearly subscription fees to Elsevier which is, of course, just one of several academic publishers. Elsevier reportedly had been trying to increase its rates by an eye-watering 80%.
There may be an argument that access to newly-published articles should be restricted for a limited time. But at the moment, even research published decades ago remains behind paywalls, despite President Barack Obama instructions to US government agencies in 2013 to devise a plan to “make the results of federally funded research freely available to the public – generally within one year of publication.”