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Sample Expository Essay: Should Academic Journals be Free?

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An academic journal is a periodical in which scholars publish articles regarding a given discipline of study. Chances are, every college student as at one time or another been required to conduct research and use scholarly articles as sources for the papers they have written. The question that will be taken up in the present sample essay provided by Ultius is the following: should academic journals be free?

The essay will have four main parts.

  1. The first part will provide a general overview of the issue at hand.
  2. The second part will discuss the arguments in favor of academic journals being free.
  3. The third part will discuss the arguments against academic journals being free.
  4. Finally, the essay will reach a considered conclusion in favor of the position that academic journals should in fact be free. 

Overview of the Issue

To start with, Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic has stated the basic issue under consideration here in the following way:

A blurb below the search bar on Google Scholar tells you to "stand on the shoulders of giants." The giants in question here are academic writers, and Google Scholar does provide searchable access to essays on a dizzying array of topics . . . Except for one problem: Most of these articles are paywalled. You need to have university access to read them—or else pay a substantial fee. (paragraphs 1-2)

Public Perception

The general public's access to many academic journals is thus restricted in a substantial way. College students do not experience this issue, since their institutions carry subscriptions to academic databases; and the general public can sometimes access similar databases through libraries. What is close to impossible, though, is for an individual person to access most academic journals on their own, without going through the mediation of a large institution, except by paying a substantial per-article fee. This fee would be enough to make the intellectual material within most journals virtually inaccessible for most people. 

This leads into issues of academic freedom and the protection of intellectual property. On the one hand, it would seem that it would be just for everyone to have free access to the articles that can be found in academic journals, insofar access to information has come to be seen as something close to a right in these times (and especially with the rise and proliferation of the Internet). On the other, though, questions could be asked about whether the academics who write articles for scholarly journals have a right to the copyright protection of their own intellectual property, just like any other producer of intellectual content. If so, this would seem to imply that it is fair to charge a fee for access to that content. 

A different model of intellectual publication, though, consists of open source journals. These are essentially journals whose contents are free for access by the general public, with no paywalls or other kinds of restrictions to access. This form of publication has become especially popular in the Internet age, since the overhead costs for publishing content on the Internet are virtually nil.

The main ethos behind open source journals consists of the ideal that valuable intellectual material should be made as widely and easily available as possible, in order to enrich society as a whole and increase the possibilities of creating even further content on the basis of already existing knowledge. Moreover, this is also in the interests of the content producers insofar as their primary objective simply consists of sharing their ideas with others. This, however, fundamentally conflicts with the idea that the articles contained within academic journals should be treated as private intellectual material and should be legally and financially protected accordingly.

Alexandra Elbakyan, a russian scholar gained notoriety for launching Sci-Hub, a free directory of academic journal articles that usually cost money to access. A summary judgment has been made against her, basically requiring her to pay for the damage she's cause to the publisher of the journals she's published. 

Argument For Journals Being Free

One of the main arguments in favor of academic journals being free consists of the simple fact that the open source model of distribution is more congruent with the basic ethos and purposes of academia than is the for-profit distribution model. As Michael McCarthy of The Independent has pointed out, one British academic panel on this subject has put forth the following recommendation:

In its [the for-profit model's] place should be a system of open access, where the cost of publishing a scientific paper in a journal is met out of public funds, rather than by the journal readers, say Dame Janet and her academic panel, with the universities and the research councils being the main institutions providing the finance (paragraph 3)

Private versus public

This recommendation is based on the notion that academic intellectual property essentially belongs to the public as a whole, and that it should therefore be funded by the public and made available to the public, as opposed to leaving the whole matter in the hands of private stakeholders. 

As it stands, the costs of accessing research articles for an individual person, without the mediation of large-scale institutions, is so high as to make those articles virtually inaccessible to the common man. As The New York Times Kate Murphy has written:

Legally downloading a single journal article when you don't have subscription costs around $30, which adds up quickly considering a search of even narrow topics can return hundreds if not thousands of articles. And the skyrocketing cost of journal subscriptions, which have unlimited downloads, is straining library budgets. (paragraph 10)

If one bears in mind that the intellectual content published in academic journals primarily exists to be read, critiqued, and cited by others, this state of affairs begins to make little logical sense. It is not good for the content producer that his material will not be widely read; it is not good for the reader that he cannot access the material; and it is not good for society as a whole that potentially valuable knowledge is simply being hoarded away instead of being put to good use. This is especially the case when the articles in question contain cutting-edge scientific findings. 

Moreover, it is worth pointing out that much academic research is already funded by public money, and content producers often do not even make money on the articles they write for the various journals. As Schaffer has pointed out:

Academic scientists, some backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of public moneys, provide their findings and articles to most journals for free. Peer-reviewers, who perform the crucial quality-control work, also offer comments on research papers for no charge. In other words, journals receive what are in effect large subsidies from the rest of the scientific community, which in turn receives significant funding from taxpayers. (paragraph 5)

In other words, all other considerations aside, there is a fundamental unfairness inherent in the fact that the public is barred from free and direct access to academic journals: the funding model to a large extent already reflects the open-source model, but the fruits of that funding continue to remain in privatized hands. 

Argument Against Journals Being Free

On the other hand, it is worth considering the ways in which making academic journals free could potentially change the incentive structure within all of academia, possibly in some ways for the worse. As Willetts has suggested, for example:

"There are clear trade-offs. If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will that leave individual researchers who can't cover the cost?" (paragraph 6).

That is, it is possibly that the openness of removing financial barriers to access to financial journals may inadvertently produce other kinds of barriers that are unforeseen for the time being.

At the very least, then, the suggestion can be made that great care must be taken before people go about revising the entire distribution model for so much academic content, and that the changes may in some ways produce outcomes that are worse than those that are produced by the currently prevailing status quo. 

Moreover, the basic point could be made that academics, just like anyone else, should be paid for their work, and that this potentially implies a for-profit model for academic journals. As Kendzior has pointed out:

Academics are particularly vulnerable to media-industry exploitation. They are accustomed to writing for nothing and, in the case of adjuncts, to be treated terribly by their employers. Because academic work in professional journals is hidden behind paywalls, the prospect of reaching a wider audience can be enticing. (paragraph 9)

Protecting integrity

Without the protection of the paywalls, it is possible that academics may become vulnerable to even more serious exploitation than they already currently are. In this context, the current model of distribution for academic content could be justified in terms of protecting the interests of the content producers, which is of course an important priority to consider. 

In general, the argument against the increased openness of intellectual content does not attack the value of openness itself: it would be difficult to oppose that in and of itself, insofar as virtually all serious stakeholders agree that the increased availability of content would be a good thing. Rather, the argument focuses on the basic unfeasibility of actually shifting to an open source business model. As Peter Scott of The Guardian indicates, for example, the two main routes to achieve such a shift would to either

"shift the financial burden . . . from journal subscribers to the authors of articles," or to "require all universities to deposit an open-source version of articles in the financial repositories," but "there are problems with both routes" (paragraph 3).

The main argument against making academic journals free, then, comes from the angle of pragmatism. Given the nature of the economy and institutions such as academia, it may simply not be possible make the open source model work in an effective way.  

Considered Conclusion

On the basis of the above discussion, a conclusion can easily be reached in favor of making academic journals free and widely available to the public. To a large extent, this is based on the simple fact that the economic model underlying academic publishing quite simply does not require or entail copyright protection for the producers of such content. The fact is that academics are actually paid salaries in order to produce intellectual content, which means that their livelihoods or not dependent on whether or not the content sells within the context of a free market. Indeed, this point is integral for the honesty and integrity of the content in question: if academics had to worry about whether their content would sell, then this would seriously compromise the quality and transparency of the material that is actually being published by academics. Moreover, academics themselves care primarily about their reputations, and they would really like nothing better for their content to be available to as wide an audience as possible. 

Moreover, it is also the case that even the current business model for the publishing of academic content is such that the public pays for a large portion of the production of such content, but is then widely locked out from the fruits of that content. This is unjust even according to the most fundamental conceptions of the word, and it is a state of affairs that must be changed. In light of this consideration, the arguments that fundamental changes in the business model for academic content are unfeasible just quite simply do not hold water. This is especially the case when serious academic panels are already in the process of working on models through which the business can transition to the open source model in a smooth and functional way. In short, the conclusion can be reached that academic journals should be free, and that efforts should be taken to make this happen.  

Works Cited

Berlatsky, Noah. "Why Isn't Academic Research Free to Everyone?" The Atlantic. 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. 

Kendzior, Sarah. "Should Academics Write for Free?" Vitae. 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. 

McCarthy, Michael. "Published Research Should Be Free and Open to All, Says Academic Panel." Independent. 18 Jun. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. 

Murphy, Kate. "Should All Research Papers Be Free?" New York Times. 12 Mar. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Schaffer, Amanda. "Open Access." Slate. 14 Dec. 2004. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. 

Scott, Peter. "Scholarly Publishing Should Be Free—But Not a Free-for-All." The Guardian. 6 May 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. 

Willetts, David. "Open, Free Access to Academic Journals: This Will Be a Seismic Shift." The Guardian. 1 May 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. 

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