Academic databases must be made more accessible

Academic databases have grown in the past few decades to become one of the most important research resources for students and professionals alike. There is no doubt that the accessibility they offer has been instrumental in making learning and research easier for anyone who works or studies in academia. However, as great an influence as they have had on our institutions of higher learning, there are many improvements that can be made to databases to make them more accessible and realize their true intent: better learning.

We cannot deny the value that academic databases have offered to make learning more accessible, but their entire structure is an elitist orientation favoring large research institutions over small, liberal arts colleges like Vassar. Many academic databases run off a subscription basis, requiring schools to invest large sums of money for monthly access to journals. While, in the past, this cost has been justified to fund paper distribution, the internet has added a gray area here, as anyone at any school can access a database as easily as the next. The subscription basis used today makes larger schools more capable to provide simply because they have more students in a broader range of disciplines—not to mention graduate students. What this creates is a divide in educational accessibility and affordability between students at larger and smaller schools, limiting their ability to access the same range of journals and content for academic purposes. As a result, students in smaller schools miss out for a variable—school size—that actually serves an important element in defining a college experience.  Students of any institution deserve equal access to databases that are just as available at other schools.

The solution here, frankly, is to make more journals, if not all, equally accessible to all academic institutions across the board, or go as far as to require journal and database access to be free for all students in higher education. This seems to contradict the very foundation behind academic journals as a way to help fund academia or offer profit for those who contribute, but it’s unfair to argue that profit is the primary motive of the academic journal and database process—not to mention the fact that academic databases profit far more than their own contributors. The motive here is to create accessible learning with affordability in mind for all students. There are many accessible journals already, but there is no excuse for the remaining journals not to make themselves more accessible to smaller schools like Vassar

The death of Aaron Swartz last January has helped to raise necessary criticism of how we currently view academic databases and respective copyright law. Aaron Swartz himself was an advocate for more accessible academic journals and databases, and this very activism brought him into controversy at MIT, where he set up a server to automatically download millions of files from JSTOR, a major academic database. The server that Swartz used to download JSTOR actually crashed its servers several times, and caught the attention of the Department of Justice, who later arrested Swartz and indicted him for downloading the files illegally. In reality, access to JSTOR is legal on the MIT campus, though its terms and conditions do not allow the mass downloading of content from its databases. This began a two-year long legal battle between Swartz and the Fed, a struggle that Swartz’ family claims led to his death. Swartz was reportedly harassed constantly by the DoJ, which wanted to prosecute him much more severely than MIT, the institution where he committed the offense. As a result of his suicide, many of the people involved in his prosecution have backed off, even though it highlights the serious reality of how hypocritical such academic institutions have become. These institutions now put the priority of copyright law and its backward legal system before the  education of the masses.

Recently, the White House itself began changing its views on academic databases, and advocated that research conducted with federal money should be made freely available to the public. This is a step in the right direction, but there is much more progress necessary to truly make academic databases what they should: free and open to students of all origins. Why should one institution have better research access than the University of Nebraska, Dutchess County Community College or Vassar? Is there a legitimate reason? We should encourage learning, not deter it, and hopefully academic journals are made more affordable in the coming years to ensure that their documents are accessible to everyone, and our goals for higher education become a reality in the years to come.


—Josh Sherman is a student at Vassar College. He is Assistant Opinions Editor of the Miscellany.

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