Paying for knowledge (Academics are not greedy)

I finally did something I've meant to do for a while – I subscribed to the New York Times.  I've never actually liked the NYT as a paper because of its smug attitude and insider way of writing about culture.  It radiates the fact that it is for people from some small part of a city I've spent very little time in, and not for someone like me, from Chicago.  But it also contains some of the world's best reporting, and one of its subsidiary papers, The International Herald Tribune, is my favourite paper.

So anyway, I don't want all newspapers to fold and I think the press and an informed citizenry both have a critical role in democracy. Yet I haven't subscribed to a newspaper (excluding a few years of The Economist) since I noticed what an enormous waste of trees my stack of Chicago Tribunes was a few months after graduating from college.  After all, papers are primarily supported by advertisements, so I read the (free) Chicago Reader and copies of the Tribune and yes, the NYT that we got at work and in coffee shops, and thought reading was enough and paying was optional.  But I also noticed I was increasingly getting my news from essentially one source, and that source was struggling and having to lose reporters, so I knew I should subscribe.  Will had even subscribed.  I had (rotating) emails for cheap introductory offers to the NYT kicking around in my inbox, waiting for me to find time to click the links.  But what made me finally pony up is when I started a day or two ago to click links in twitter and get the message "sorry, you've read your free 10 articles for this month."  OK, I've got five days to go until September, but that finally pushed me over the brink to doing what I always intended and believe was right.

Why is this worth a blog post?  Because I also get abuse for believing that academics journals should cost money to read.  The abuse is weird and snarky and only 140 characters long, so I'm not clear on how anyone thinks that an academic "has reasons" to "keep their knowledge locked up".  Look I'm a Reader.  That's like the high end of being an Associate Professor – a promoted, successful, permanent academic. Yet only last year I finally started making as much money I did back in the 1980s when I worked in industry (not corrected for inflation,) and I didn't make that much then (for a programmer).  Every paper I've ever written (with a few random exceptions) is available free on the Internet, mostly on my own web page that I maintain by hand.  I tell anyone who will listen everything I know, whether they are students paying tuition, people at conferences or universities that fly me out to give talks, or random strangers on a bus.

I don't think that academic papers should cost money because I'm greedy.  I think they should cost money because a) the money to curate them has to come from somewhere, but also b) money should reward publishers for producing content people want to read, not for taking papers from people that write them.  This latter alternative is something called "gold open access", where the same person who spent months or years writing the paper now also has to pay to get it published.  Like many academics, I pay for a lot of my own conference travel, although my department is often generous and refunds my costs back for all the receipts I've managed to keep.  And my university is doing unusually well in these difficult financial times, and would almost certainly pay for my papers if I went into gold open access.  But I still think this is wrong.  If the university paid for all the journal articles I submit or even publish, they would spend almost double what they do now per academic paying for journal subscriptions.  Gold open access does NOT benefit universities and never will.  It benefits people who consume open knowledge without producing it, like private pharmaceutical labs. (This doesn't even touch on the moral hazard aspect of "bribe to publish".)

Secondly, even though I'm currently in a decent place in my own department and university, I like many have seen what kind of nasty department politics can get played.  I don't want to buy into a system that allows a university or department or even group leader decide which students get to publish articles and which do not.  What research is part of the current "strategy" and worth supporting?  The academics who will be hurt by this are very likely to be interdisciplinary researchers and creative radical thinkers.  How can I buy into a system that would hurt them?

The New York Times gives a discount for people working in education.  My university gives me access to almost every journal I want to look at.  Is that unfair?  No more unfair than my salary.  I chose the life of the mind, and I both pay for it and get paid for it.