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Funding the Public’s Trust: Financial Impediments at the Forefront of Knowledge

Google Scholar searches only academic journals for scientific information. Results include direct links to journal pages where you can read abstracts for free, but unless you're logged in through a subscribed academic institution, you'll have to pay to view the paper.

There’s a certain irony in accessing the forefront of human knowledge: it’s behind a pay wall. In the modern deluge of free information, the most advanced information will cost you ~$30/article. When you hear about a scientific breakthrough, you don’t read the primary source because you don’t have access to it. Everything is moderated through a media outlet, CNN, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, Ria Novosti, Huffington Post, etc, which necessarily simplifies the information presented. More damningly I would argue, it obscures what actually takes place in those “ivory towers” and stops challenging people to understand science. Scientific reports (actual science) discuss the whole process of discovery whereas reports on science only discuss the results. Science is more than results, it’s a process, it’s a way of viewing, investigating, processing, and figuring out the world around us. It’s a lesson we understand as toddlers. As we stumble around, occasionally breaking objects and occasionally bones, we’re testing our environment. It’s how we understand the limits of ourselves, our species, and our world.

Another contradiction is that you’ve probably already paid for this research. Most science is funded by government agencies such as the NSF, NIH, ARC, NRC’s or indirectly through support of public universities. Public funding exists because we understand the importance of fundamental research, especially the research that bears no obvious commercial value. Science creates impacts only when its transformed into application. Imagine what we could achieve if we connected  the collected human knowledge with the collective human imagination. Websites like Marblar  are trying to make that connection, but we need more. Our society would only be enriched by making information, all information, publicly available.

Publishing scientific information is a tough business. There’s an extremely limited readership, peer review is time intensive, and increasing importance of impact factors only raises the pressure. In fact, most journals charge both authors and readers in an attempt to remain solvent, and still rely on voluntary peer reviewers. There is movement towards open-source journals with freely available articles, but generally these are limited and low impact resulting in little chance attracting or containing top tier research. Regardless, they’re a step in the right direction. Arron Swartz died trying to breach these financial barriers to knowledge, but true cost to society is much greater than losing one visionary.

Civilizations thrive on publicly available information. That’s why the library at Alexander existed, that’s why libraries still exist 2300 years later. Libraries are now in competituion with the pervasivity of the internet, yet the two informations are not exact substitutes. There is no filter on the internet which results in a flood of hyperbole, misinformation, and lies, yet the real knowledge is neatly kept behind a societal damn. We need to release the floodgates of knowledge.

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