April 15, 2014, 3:15 pm

What if Obama paid for your Elsevier subscription? Or rather—what if the federal government covered the expense? Package it as a STEM or innovation initiative– something along those lines.

This is a hypothetical question, but obviously the free thinking from last week has carried over.

The short of it: there is a lot of conversation around open access and federal mandates for data and publications, but that feels like a slow road. The prestige of commercial journals is too ingrained—so how about a different approach?

What if we changed the scale? Instead of individual libraries (or consortiums) battling it out with the likes of Elsevier and other academic publishers (I’ll never forget the audacity of Nature’s 400% increase!) — what if the government purchased access to major academic journals (and eBook packages?) for all citizens. Or all households? Or for anyone interested enough to fill out the paperwork?

Again entirely hypothetical. I’m not advocating for this. I want to stay away from the ownership or censorship or validation of knowledge thread. I am not saying that the government should do this. And I don’t want to get distracted by the logistics or feasibility of actually making it happen, but just consider the possibility. Practice some lateral thinking.

Clearly there would be a benefit of access to scientific, technical, and medical knowledge without barriers. Everyone would have access to the same content, not just the elite schools or corporations. Let’s call it universal knowledge access.

But imagine the cost. We are talking billions of dollars and that doesn’t even include back files, authentication, or infrastructure. I did a lowball guesstimate and came in around $91,000,000,000.

And that’s the point I am trying to make. The cost of providing everyone in this country with access to just one major academic publisher’s portfolio would be equal to the size of Russia’s defense budget. Add in Springer, Wiley, and others and maybe we start getting close to half trillion.

Knowledge ain’t cheap! But when the cost of journal subscriptions is more than we pay for bombs, tanks, missiles, guns, fighter jets, ships, and so forth… that’s when you that something’s not right.

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