The privilege and exclusivity of academia

I knew that when I left the world of academia and became an industrial scientist, my relationship with the rest of my field would change. I knew I wouldn't be writing so many papers, but I thought I'd still have access to what others had written.  This week I had an experience that showed me how hard it really is for the general public to get access to science as it happens, and what a privilege it is to be a professor.

I needed some data about what results to expect from an experiment a coworker had done.  When I was in school or worked at the national laboratories, I could look that information up in a database at my library.  (I'm referring to the database that I discussed in a previous post.)  The database costs thousands of dollars a year, but that's nothing for a national laboratory employing 900 PhD's.  The University of Michigan had a subscription, but I was shocked to discover that Case Western Reserve University does not.  They have a pretty good materials science graduate program there, so I expected them to carry it.  My company pays for a third-party service to search intellectual property databases and the technical literature, but they didn't have it either.  It looks like in order to get the data that I need to make a comparison between our experiments and a model, I will have to drive to Michigan and visit the library in Ann Arbor.  Or ask a favor of a colleague.

A similar thing happens with what I've called the technical literature.  That's all the peer-reviewed articles that have been used for hundreds of years to present new scientific results in journals.  As an industrial scientist, I depend on keeping abreast of new developments in my field, and looking up solutions to old problems.  In academia, that was trivial:  universities maintain digital subscriptions to the major journals, so I could just download articles from my desk.  At my current job, our third-party service can alert me to new articles I should read, but they won't retrieve them for me.  I have to go to a library that has a subscription to that journal and photocopy it.  If no local library has it, I have to pay the publisher $30-45 for a copy.

Why?  Databases and journals cost money.  The five or so major scientific publishers have been raising subscription prices at a rate that far outstrips inflation - something like the rapidly increasing price of an undergraduate education.  They can get away with it because it is very close to a single-payer system.  Very few private libraries subscribe to these journals; the places that do are major corporate research labs like IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.  The entire national laboratory system's subscriptions are paid for by the US Government, and ultimately most public and private universities' subscriptions are too, through research grants.  They ask for more money and the government pays, and the government doesn't try to do too much about it because of the publishers' lobbying power.  Who loses?  The general public, and the thousands of less-than-immense corporate research labs, like mine, scattered throughout the US. 

I came away from this experience with a strong sense of why technology companies are concentrated in cities with major research universities.  It's the library.  There are some scientific problems that just can't be solved without one.