The knowledge aristocracy

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From curing diseases with robots composed of only a few hundred atoms to looking back 13 billion years at galaxies that are light years away, science has the potential to revolutionize how we view and interact with our world.

Unfortunately, barriers created by slashed government research budgets and ill-informed legislation stand in the way of such marvels. By the far the most insurmountable barrier toward scientific progress is scientific paywalls, user fees where the reader of a journal article must pay 35 dollars to read the article, which are nearly unavoidable since 90 percent of all journals are locked tightly behind them.

These fees greatly increase the cost of doing scientific research, exacerbating recent research funding cuts, while also creating a tier-based model for the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

This has led to a fundamental disconnect between the general public and science, which is ironic given the large push for STEM education that currently dominates the education reform landscape. I mean, think about it – when a Katy Perry single costs 99 cents and a seminal science article costs 35 dollars, doesn’t it seem like we’re sending a misguided message that favors entertainment over education? By instituting this “tariff on technology,” journals have exponentially raised the cost of doing scientific research, and as a result, have sparked a heated debate surrounding how scientists should communicate their results.

One of the cornerstones of this debate is a memo released by Harvard University’s library that said, “Major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: Continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.”

Now, what does it say about the world of academic publishing, accessibility of knowledge and the flow of information when Harvard University — one of the wealthiest academic institutions in the world — cannot afford to continue paying for its peer-reviewed journal subscriptions?

By creating these paywalls, we’ve instituted a very rigid hierarchy — a pseudo-class system for scientific knowledge. We have the knowledge elite, those university and corporate labs that can afford these subscriptions; however, even among the one-percenters of knowledge, we have discrimination against access to knowledge. At the top of the hierarchy, we have the knowledge billionaires — top universities like Harvard and Stanford with massive endowments, and then further down the food chain, we have public universities that might not be able to afford the same number of subscriptions as these wealthy institutions. So it’s like saying that these top universities can all teach calculus and above, while everyone else is regulated to only Algebra 1.

The knowledged middle class consists of people who have access to the Internet and can maybe pay for a few articles here and there. And the knowledge underclass are those 5.5 billion people who lack access to the Internet and are living in knowledge poverty.

All of these feed into a knowledge aristocracy, where only 0.4 percent of all people can access scientific articles (World Bank). That’s like randomly choosing two people out of the entire Stanford undergraduate and graduate student body and saying: You are the only ones who can access this information; everyone else, too bad for you. And while these 0.4 percenters have this access, 5.5 billion people — that’s 85 percent of the world — lack access to the internet and cannot access scientific information whatsoever.

But imagine living in a knowledge democracy, where what you look like, age or gender don’t apply, that whether you’re from Cambodia, China, Malaysia or Mexico, whether you’re a billionaire or living on less than a dollar a day, you would be able to access these articles. Science should not be a luxury and knowledge should not be a commodity — it should be a basic human right.

Because the minds of the people must be free, and that means the minds of everyone, not just the minds of the select few who can afford these articles. Because a girl in Pakistan should have the exact same access to information as a renowned Nobel laureate, not only because it’s economically sound, but rather because it’s ethically correct and that’s what we call equality.

We can institute such a change. Examples such as the Public Library of Science Journals, which are completely open-access but also turn multi-million dollar profits, demonstrate that free knowledge and profit are not mutually exclusive. The question is: Will we?

 

Contact Jack Andraka at jandraka ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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