Saturday, October 04, 2008
  Scholarship is not "free" but it should be open
Way back in July (in the depths of my winter) Charles posted on the topic of the cost of scholarship. Since then I have been intending to reply ;)

In Is Scholarship Really Free? Charles argued that:
  • it is good when scholarship is freely available:
    I really love the fact that so much academic material is now distributed free of charge: the Oriental Institute is offering their treasure-trove of publications gratis, lectures on every conceivable topic from thermodynamics to Thermopylae are available on institutional sites as well as iTunes U, free online journals have arisen, and individual scholars are putting their work on their websites.
  • even such scholarship however is not really "free", since someone paid for it, he groups the patrons of scholarship (or rather its production and publication) as:
    • institutions that can use "scholarship" as advertising - here he lists teaching resources
    • institutions that employ scholars to research - if degree level teaching is "research led" should not all institutions employing scholars be employing them to research?
    • individual scholars - working for love
    • publishers - who pay for proofing and other editorial work
  • distribution costs(e.g. printing or hosting) need to be paid for
Thus far it seems to me to be good common sense. Scholarship is not free, nor is its distribution.

Though, Charles writes about scholarship in general, I'll distinguish between the research and teaching components. In this post I'll focus on research, since I have different things to say I'll do another post on teaching.

Scholarship is not free, nor is its distribution.

But institutions pay for its production either because that is what they have been given money to do, or in order to gain "profile". I'd add that (at least in places influenced by the European tradition) they also sponsor scholarship in order to retain the right to teach degrees. And sometimes individuals contribute out of love for the subject, as they have always done. Scholarship that is "paid for" in some other way, like medical research whose patron is a drug company, is suspect as it has sold its impartiality.  Scholarship which is driven by the royalties from book sales is NOT scholarship and is not worth reading ;)

Distribution costs. Traditionally scholarship was nevertheless made open through the existence of libraries which opened their doors to unattached scholars as well as to institution members, sometimes there was a small fee but this did not often bar anyone with an interest from access. Today with electronic distribution those costs are negligible Charles asks: "who’s going to host the publications and pay for bandwith" since the costs are now very low. My host copes with 60GB a month data transfer, which since "scholarly publication" is usually words with some pictures is quite a lot of scholarship ;) for US$100 per year which includes a domain name. That equates to over 2,000,000 scholarly books for $100 or 0.000000108 US cents per book. (Yes I know in reality the labour involved maintaining the site costs far more than the hosting, so let's multiply the figure above by 1000 making a whopping 0.000108 US cents per monograph.)

That leaves editing. Traditionally much editing of scholarly work has been done by volunteers, e.g. those who edit journals for the kudos not the cash. That is becoming less workable and has never worked for larger projects, like monographs. The open access movement began with research grants and institutions paying for this, but why not in each developed country a tiny proportion of the research budget gets spent on providing editing services to peer reviewed publications. It is after all in the national interest, in dozens of ways, to be seen to sponsor such work! (It would also be in the national interest to sponsor good work from scholars in other countries ;)

My conclusion is the direct opposite of Charles'. Research publication should be freely accessible, except where such "research" has been bought by the military, by drug companies... and then it should NOT be considered a scholarly but a commercial activity, and so not eligible for tenure, promotion or other scholarly uses ;)

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