Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Unequal Access

With the recent indictment of an advocate for open information access who had set up a way to download about 4 million JSTOR articles, presumably with the intent to liberate them from their native closed access, we need to step back and look at how unequal information access is in this world. In major universities in the US, academics and students log on to their computers in their offices or at home and a whole world opens up to them. That's not some kind of accident. The prime goal of university libraries is to make good on "seek and ye shall find." The proof of the success of these libraries is that researchers are oblivious to the complexity of the system that serves them. I would guess that many members of the US university community have no idea how their access to journals is managed and controlled. They don't see the contract negotiations with information providers, the continual development of software that makes single-point searching possible, the multi-faceted delivery systems that blend (or attempt to) digital and paper resources into a single stream. And they don't think about how different it would be if they weren't members of that privileged community.

Contrast that to the access available to a member of the US public who is not part of this academic sector. Like myself. Like the majority of people in this country. There is no access to JSTOR. No openURL server gives me multiple access options. The local public library does have some electronic materials, but these are much less extensive (and less expensive) than the ones in academic libraries. I may have to wait weeks to get a book that isn't in my local library's collection, if I can get it at all. I am often in the embarrassing position of not being able to access articles that I would like to read or quote from, including ones that I myself have authored.

In spite of this, I know that my information access, as a mere member of the US public, is far superior to that found in other countries; countries where serious researchers struggle to participate in research because they do not have the access that many academics here take for granted. Two anecdotes:

-- When I lived in Italy in the 1970's my friends were mainly college students or recent graduates. University education was free, but it was generally accepted that the only way to complete ones final thesis was to be able to afford to go abroad for two or three months. The purpose of this trip was to spend time in a country with a good library system, since libraries in Italy were limited. This was not just for students studying foreign literatures, but even those studying sciences, history, and art. These kids were essentially "library tourists." I don't know if this continues today.

-- During the time I worked at UC I was in a conversation with someone involved in the licensing of databases. For some reason we got talking about enforcement of contractual clauses having to do with excessive downloading and/or piracy. This person told me that all access to one of the UC campuses had been cut off recently for a few days because it was discovered that someone was systematically downloading entire journal runs. When they found the student it turned out that it was a foreign graduate student who would soon be returning home. Knowing that leaving the UC system would mean losing access to the journals he would need to continue his research, he was making himself a copy to take home.

It occurs to me as I write this that the "Digital Public Library of America" could create an information revolution in this country by upgrading the access of the general public to that of an academic or student in a large college or university, without ever digitizing a single page. What makes Stanford "Stanford" or Harvard "Harvard" is not just its famed faculty but the full range of information that is shared by that community. Everything they do, every bit of research, every new idea, is facilitated by the library and its services.

The information access gap between a university researcher and the average person on the street is immense. We have an information elite that, like most elites, considers its position to be earned, just, and reasonable. Few in academia worry that the access they have isn't widely shared. If they did, they would hopefully decide that something should be done.


Anonymous said...

When information becomes a commodity it becomes monetized (just as other commodities are.) Once that happens, access to information becomes unequal.

One way to restore equality would indeed be to subsidize access. Another would be to treat information not as a commodity, but as water or air - an essential item that everyone is entitled to access. Unfortunately, I don't see either possibility happening in the United States.

laura k said...

Thanks for this post. It was good to be reminded that outside of the academic community (I work for the UC system, myself) information access if very different, and sometimes non-existent.

Danielle Cunniff Plumer said...

For years, I've thought I should research and write a paper on "perceived information poverty," a phenomenon typical of students at elite universities who graduate and discover that the real world doesn't supply unlimited access to information. The limits are particularly hard on independent scholars, folks with no university affiliation. "Guest" borrowing cards often don't include access to electronic resources. I once offered to teach a class at UT for no salary as long as I got database access! I don't approve of what Aaron did, but I'm sorry to say that I do understand it.

Karen Coyle said...

Danielle, thanks for your comment. Take a look at the comments between Jonathan Rochkind and I on my post about the HathiTrust UI. It points out some cases where people don't know what access they have, and therefore it's the same as not having it. I would love to see a study of "perceived access" v. "actual access." It might be that we could increase access greatly not by subscribing to more databases but by letting people know what access they actually do have.