11/09/2012 02:51 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Open Access and the Duty of Higher Education

I think we all agree higher education is far too expensive. One could even argue that higher education's current model is unsustainable. It's broken, and it's a hoarder. Higher education doesn't hoard typical items, yet the entire institution of higher education should be on A&E's television show Hoarders.

What does higher education hoard? Knowledge.

The currency of the 21st century isn't always money, and it isn't always authority; it's knowledge. The ability to collect, access and employ knowledge is, like in centuries past, a vital ability to surviving in our hyper-mediated world. But, most higher-education institutions and enterprises keep access to knowledge under lock and key. Indeed, these knowledge cartels ensure the populace remains ignorant of the cartels' actions and wholly dependent on the premise that only a few are educated enough to have access.

This is particularly egregious for students. College is costly. Textbooks are costly. Room and board is costly. This is a tragic picture of what higher education has become, especially in the United States. Still, we tolerate it. Many sit back and let this reality slip their understanding. What's most disheartening about this entire situation is that some of the very people who could enact real change are the ones doing nothing.

Open access operates as a liberating phrase in some circles, and a dirty phrase in others. But, for all the bickering and posturing many academics engage in over open access, there seems to be few who have considered the plight of the student. If everyone agrees textbooks are outrageously costly, then why do we still use them? If everyone agrees journal and article databases are fantastically overpriced, then why do we sit quietly as our universities continue to pay for them?

For all of this cost, we do nothing to directly help students with the cost of going to class every day. Experts in the class material and topic, or at least that is the line provided to students, parents and the community, teach college classes. However, many of these so-called experts still heavily rely on textbooks written by another expert, which is then printed by a publishing house and offered in college bookstores all around the country for disgusting fees. After all of that, the author of the textbook probably receives an insignificant amount of royalties. No scholar publishes an educational or research text to make money. There is no money in it.

The only currency a scholar receives from an educational textbook is academic currency, which is often useless outside of the academy. This act of publishing is perverse when held against the mission of every university: to enlighten and educate. Yet, we still do it, and more than any, students suffer the most.

Since so many in higher education still cleave to the dying edifice of an over leveraged past, to an idea of what was, and not what is or should be, an enlightened 21st century society will never be attained. Open access opponents stand in the way of progress. They do not contribute to the goal of higher education, but, instead, they stymie it and offer nothing but fleeting and fallacious arguments regarding the grandness of the printed word and the respectability of closed access publications.

The argument often pandered to many is that open access lowers the respectability and authority of publications, which is far from the case. The main thing open access offers us is access. Anyone with an Internet connection and computer can access the work of scholars. What's wrong with that? Really, the answer is nothing; however, open access opponents seem lost in the forest of their denial. Furthermore, when it comes to public universities and publicly funded (at some level) research, these opponents do not have the right to deny access to the greater community. It is a travesty, and one propagated and sold to the populace via the authority of the academy.

Though, there is a way to fix this problem:

1. Scholars need to stop submitting to journals that do not give free and open access to the community.
2. Students need to demand that their teachers stop requiring expensive and closed access textbooks, especially when so much information is freely available on the Internet.
3. The community needs to make it clear that when the public funds research, they should have access to the published findings.
4. The U.S. government, as well as state governments, should require any university receiving public funding to make published research available freely and openly as a requirement of said funding.

There simply is no supportable argument to not make academic publications open access. It is simple and easy to do, and it requires minimal effort. Our students deserve it, our community deserves it and the world populace deserves it. We can no longer allow higher education to maintain a chokehold on knowledge and proffer it in closed access publications, where very few will every read it.

You're either for open access or you're not, for open knowledge or not. One fulfills the great mission and idea of higher education, while the other offers the community hardly anything and retains knowledge as the currency of the highly privileged.

What side do you want to be on?