Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Academic Disaster Du Jour: Canadian Edition

Memorial University is gutting itself.  How so?  It is dramatically cutting the library's subscriptions to academic journals.  Why should we care?  Because this effort to save money hurts the university's core missions of research and teaching.

Academic journals are often disparaged for being opaque, for being read just by scholars and all the rest.  But they serve at least two vital purposes.   First, when one is engaged in academic research, one has to know what has been written on the topic so that one can build on previous work or reject previous work.  One needs to define how one's work is original/novel/a contribution.  If one does not have access to the existing work, then one cannot do research.  Certainly, one cannot publish work without having a decent understanding of previous work.  So, I guess Memorial wants to get out of the business of having its professors publish?

Second, check out the syllabi of classes.  Much of the reading comes from articles in academic journals.  Really!  Yes, we can assign textbooks (very expensive) or have readers built from book chapters and other materials (expensive if one respects copyrights).  Or we can either provide links or just provide enough info for our students to track down articles that present either good or bad arguments that we can then use in the classroom to think about the various issues.

One could ask students to pay for these subscriptions (as paying to access individual articles is incredibly expensive), but they already do--it is called tuition.  One of the most basic services a university has to provide to be a university is ... a library.  And one of the most basic things a university library must provide is access to journals. 

Yes, we can all fight the publishers who overcharge, and we should.  The open access movement is gaining momentum precisely because universities are being squeezed.  But that is a collective action problem that is combined with path dependence, which makes it hard to do.*
* Yes, those links are two academic articles that might just be handy if one has access.  It is problematic that access is hard for those outside of universities.  It is tragic if folks at universities cannot access them.
While disciplines and universities need to work to change the system so that open access becomes the norm, so that professors can get tenure based on articles published at open access journals, so that journal publishers become less rapacious in their pursuit of profit, we cannot take budget cutting measures that will make it damn near impossible for the universities to do their essential missions of fostering the creation of knowledge and of teaching the next generation.

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