The issue is that a large portion of the research done in the US is performed by faculty paid by academic institutions and supported by public money, often grants from the NIH. A significant condition of promotion in academic careers is publication of original research in trusted journals, which is entirely reasonable to most everybody involved, except for the librarians who have to pay for the journals. The journals, you see, are really expensive, but the problem isn’t the price of the journals, it’s the fact that they pay nothing to support the research they publish.
In more direct terms, universities and governments pay to do the research, then they have to pay again to buy the journals in which that research is published. Meanwhile, the publishers collect the research for free and then sell it back to the people who did the work for very large sums of money.
This has been a problem for decades, but it’s become more significant in the past decade because technology has changed how libraries buy those journals. It used to be that a library that couldn’t afford to continue a journal subscription still kept the shelves of back issues they’d purchased previously, but electronic access is licensed, not sold. A library facing a budget crunch this year can’t cancel a subscription without giving up access to all the back issues as well. One bad budget year can empty a modern library of the resources we expect from them.
It is both a surprise and not a surprise that several years into the longest and hardest recession most living Americans had ever suffered, this issue is now getting broader public attention. Michael Wilkes, the voice of KCRW’s Second Opinion made it the point of a recent episode (mp3).
I’d been out of library circles for too long to realize this outburst was triggered by a blog post by Timothy Gowers that triggered a boycott of the largest journal publisher, but an episode (mp3) of On The Media took up this issue in some detail. Meanwhile, some of the federal agencies responsible for the largest share of research grants are making open access to raw data a condition of the grants (NSF’s policy) and the new data.gov is has been launched as a clearinghouse for currently available data.