The People’s Knowledge

Earlier this year, the Trump Administration placed a gag order on certain federally-funded scientific organizations, like the EPA and the National Parks Service. While these “gag orders” might be common and temporary, occurring briefly at the beginning of each new administration, there has been a public outcry over censorship.

I’m trying to keep my head about me between hyped up news about “normal” political transition, the more radical leanings of a more radical conservative party, and the outright not-normal political maneuvers – and then craft my responses to each. Plus, there’s the everyday stuff like planning a systems migration at work, or making sure that my horse is happy and healthy. But in light of this “gag order” for scientific organizations, I started to think about what information the public would not be getting.

And I realized gag orders on federally-funded scientific research prevent the public from accessing information they paid for.

I could talk about the various ethical implications for gag orders and other restrictions on the dissemination of information, but that’s for another time. This blog post is about money.

The majority of employed individuals in the United States pay the government a significant portion of their wages or salaries. The government uses that money (idealistically) to fund various public services. Among those public services is scientific research. So, we paid for that scientific knowledge. Now, I understand that certain research might affect national security – but for the majority of research, it should be right in the hands of the citizens who paid for it.

While librarians haven’t been necessarily focusing on governmental gag orders on scientists, we have been considering who pays for information. I worked for acquisitions in a major R1 university; I knew we were paying millions for access to scientific (and humanities and social science) scholarship. And even when we paid millions and millions and had the second largest academic library in North America – we still couldn’t afford everything. Smaller institutions have it much worse. (I know. Now, I’m stranded without even half of what I had at the University of Illinois.)

To mitigate this information gap, librarians (and other education professionals) have been pushing the idea of “open access” – where anyone anywhere can access scholarly information. Several journals and monographs are now widely available online for free. Still, there is plenty of literature trapped behind paywalls.

Librarians push open access with ethical, logical, and pragmatic arguments. Again, these are interesting reasons – but I’m focusing on the money.

As an acquisitions librarian, I am used to paying (a lot of money) for information. And that information comes with lots of DRM. And then, the next fiscal year, you pay more – for the subscription or for database maintenance. I’m so used to the financial aspects of information, this back and forth transaction, that I forget that some of the stuff the library was paying for…I had paid for as well.

I have paid income taxes in Illinois for six years. And those taxes paid for the state universities, which fund researchers. (Plus, plenty of my federal taxes went to those state universities as well.) The research coming out of the Illinois university system, at least for those six years, in part belongs to me: I funded it, I paid for it. So has every other resident of the state. So, now that I’m in Iowa, I’m funding Iowa’s state universities and their research. Why should all that research I paid for be behind giant paywalls?

Maybe it shouldn’t be. (It’s a long argument. I don’t necessarily think all the paywalls should go away. I am, after all, part acquisitions librarian from a large R1 university who is used to paying for the stuff. And open access comes with its own pitfalls.)

But I’m giving a shout out to those publicly-funded institutions that are making their research open and free to the public. NASA gets a special shout out because of their new PubSpace.


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