Research should be easily accessible to all online
UConn is a research university. To many students, that means nothing. The happenings of the hallowed halls of academia are often shrouded in mystery, occasionally summarized or sensationalized by media outlets and often referenced by politicians to support whatever agenda they may have. I had an informational interview at a UConn Health Center research institution early this month. "What I'm concerned about," explained my interviewer, "is how much of the work we are doing is actually reaching the public."
Research and academic papers are published in peer-reviewed journals. The process is long and vigorous. Each paper is anonymously vetted by experts in the field, a process which culls out methodologically poor and intellectually stagnant work and allows innovative and important papers to rise to the top. The work is then published, typically after several revisions and put out for scholars to build upon or tear down.
Interestingly, the information and research contained in these journals is not immediately available to the general public, unless of course people pay the subscription fee or are affiliated with a university library. The reason for this is that journals can't afford the lengthy publication and peer-review process unless people pay. More often than not, the research within each publication becomes public after a set length of time, or another issue is released.
This process has begun to break down with the advent of internet publications. The publishers are slowly shifting toward an open-access, digital format. The change is exciting, but poses a number of unique problems. Possibly the most important one is monetary. While a journal cuts costs by not having to print a physical edition, open-access forces it to rely strictly upon institutional support, advertisement and donations. These alone don't seem to bear the overhead that the review and publication process need. I think there is a case for increased support for these academic publications because the benefits to the public having total, open access are overwhelming.
The move would begin to tear down the veil of mystery, which has become associated with academia by giving citizens a look at exactly where their money is going, how it is being spent and what good is coming from it. Michael B. Eisen's January op-ed in the New York Times, "Research Bought, Then Paid For," summarized this argument well, suggesting that institutional libraries put primary support toward journals, which share their information openly to the public. But I think that more must be done to make this information actually valuable to the public. What good is research to a public who can't understand it without somebody to explain its significance? Do we risk the intellectual conclusions reached in economic, scientific and philosophical fields being misinterpreted? I think the risk is real and important to address—Sarah Palin's 2008 comment on the perceived futility of fruit-fly research comes to mind.
So how do we prevent this? An important first step is a stronger emphasis on fields like logic, statistics and general research methods, in addition to using primary research documents in the classroom more often. As one professor put it to me, students need to become "knowledgeable consumers… of research," enabling them to measure the importance of each study or paper by themselves.
A public that is able to understand and interpret this wide array of information available for free will be better able to make informed choices about the most controversial topics of our time and of the future: global warming, stem-cell research, various economic policies and reproductive health, just to name a few. I don't intend to suggest that there are black and white answers in these texts, but that the information laid out in them allows readers to get facts, which are a mutual common-ground which we can agree on build off of.
Privileging research and intellectual thought has become a necessary evil within academic publications in order for them to stay afloat. But, when you realize that this is the work that has allowed us to progress as a society scientifically, morally, and artistically, giving only a few the ability to access it and the tools to use it seems ridiculous. While increasing public funding to these research publications is obviously more expensive, it will simultaneously make the money we are spending on research more efficient by giving more people access.
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