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Why open-access is a good idea

January 23, 2012

There’s a specific type of work that I often like to do during my morning coffee drinking/news reading ritual.  It’s a kind of low-intensity reading of things that are interesting, but only marginally related to my current projects.  This morning, that took the form of reading a few pieces of William of Tyre’s Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, a 12th century account of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.  (Parts of it are available in translation here, if you’re interested.)  This inspired me to check Google Books to see if they had a preview of a book I was looking for, so I wouldn’t have to go to the library to get it.  They didn’t, but the search also turned up a book I hadn’t heard of before: Unknown Crusader Castles by Kristian Molin.  I have no idea whether this book is good or bad, as I only found out about it this morning, but it sounds like something that would have some appeal even beyond an academic audience (or would, at least, if it were available as anything but a $220 hardcover. . . another downside of many academic publishers).

So, to determine whether I had much interest in tracking it down, I went looking for some book reviews. The second Google Scholar result was, indeed, a book review, in The English Historical Review.  I clicked the review and met, to my surprise, an Ingenta paywall.  This wouldn’t have surprised me, except that I was already logged into my university VPN, and know I have several EHR papers in my Papers library.  Moreover, our library pays for access to a number of journals I regularly read through Ingenta.  But no, Ingenta wanted $36 for a two-page book review.  That wasn’t going to happen, so I figured I would try JSTOR, but didn’t have any luck there, either, since the review was from the year after the JSTOR cutoff.  Finally, I did the sensible thing and searched my university library’s catalog, and found that we subscribe to the EHR through four services, including JSTOR, but that Ingenta isn’t one of them.  In the end, it took far more time to actually track down the review than it did to read it.

There are a few things wrong with this picture, but the one that really stands out to me is that Ingenta wanted $36 for a copy of this review.  I understand that the per-article fees are designed to encourage subscription, rather than to actually give access to individual papers, but that’s an outrageous amount of money for two pages of book review.  In this case, too, it really highlights the problem everyone seems to have brought up with academic publishing: there’s really no way for anyone to have access to a lot of this stuff unless they’re affiliated with a research institution that has a good library.  Even for the most interested non-academic, buying a $36 book review to determine whether you should buy a $220 book isn’t worth it.

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