As part of his ‘Digital Democracy‘ manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn has unveiled plans to end one of the biggest scams in modern history.
At present, the British people are paying twice for education and information. Once, to create research (for example, through Research Council funding) and then again to buy back the research through online journal subscriptions, university fees and public library costs. Despite funding the research, the taxpayer must pay again for access.
An ‘Open Knowledge Library’, proposed in the manifesto, would stop us being charged twice for academic research:
The Open Knowledge Library will be the digital repository of lessons, lectures, curricula and student work from Britain’s nurseries, schools, colleges and universities. We will require the findings of all state-funded research to be made available without charge to the general public through this learning portal.
In a move that will anger private digital libraries like JSTOR, Corbyn’s Labour has vowed to end their sneaky profiteering on the back of the taxpayer. Publicly funded research would, accordingly, become publicly available.
Without such access, we are currently paying extortionate fees to expand our knowledge through research we have already funded. Single journals on JSTOR can cost up to $50 to access without a university affiliation. If they are available at all.
If you happen to be a student at university, then you may sidestep the online paywalls, but not the scam. Research funded publicly and by universities themselves is then sold back to universities at inflated prices. As Laura Mckenna writes in The Atlantic:
Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public — which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system — has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs.
Each UK university loses up to £3.38m (PDF, page 6) per year buying back research they themselves have funded. Meanwhile, access to digital libraries for students costs universities an annual fortune. Students therefore join the general people in forking out once again for publicly funded research, but through tuition fees rather than paywalls.
Like students, if you happen to be at a public library then you may sidestep the online paywalls, but not the scam. In 2008, access to journals and subscriptions cost UK libraries £235m (PDF, page 1) of taxpayer money. Hence, even if you are at a library, the library has paid a second time for publicly funded research.
Open access to information saves lives
The injustice of paying twice for research is not the only reason we should adopt an open access model. All of us benefit from having doctors, teachers, academics and other well educated people in society.
Case in point: Jack Andraka, who was 15 years old when he identified a revolutionary tool in recognising pancreatic cancer, would never have made his discovery without access to online journals.
Open source information is a no-brainer. As the rights to the research are bought by digital libraries like JSTOR, removing these companies and their paywalls does not mean that the researchers and writers do not get paid. It only means huge profits are not siphoned off by these unnecessary gatekeepers. It means we are not paying twice for information.
And crucially, the more people who have access to research, the higher the chance we have of scientific, philosophical and artistic breakthroughs. 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year. This is not including the other private digital library giants. Imagine the expansion of human knowledge and progress should these attempts have been granted.
Watch the documentary on Aaron Swartz, one of the greatest pioneers of internet freedom and open source information. He was the co-founder of Reddit, architect of Creative Commons, political activist, and a key contributor to the first RSS feeds at 14. These are just a few examples of his incredible achievements before he committed suicide in the face of persecution by the US government aged just 26.
Featured image from Flickr/Garry Knight