Research Wants to Be Free

As we’ve learned from Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Harvard and Columbia professors gave scholarly cover to corporate financial practices that nearly ruined the American economy. Universities, both public and private, serve the common good, yet too often corporate and other special interests drive academic research. In a way this is an ironic consequence of the push to make universities more like corporations. Universities will act like corporations: enjoying the protection of the public trust yet secretive in their pursuit of profit. Already universities resemble corporations in one respect: most of the riches go to a few–in the case of universities, business, engineering, and physical science professors–while the majority toil for scandalously low wages.

Writing in Guernica, Jay Walljasper argues universities can redeem themselves by making scholarly research available on the web. He urges universities and the disciplines to strengthen the “information commons.” He wonders,

What if professors could also boost their credentials and keep their jobs by disseminating their research in magazines, newspapers, websites, online journals, books, films, exhibitions and other outlets seen by millions? This would not mean diluting the findings of their work, merely presenting their ideas in a way that could inform, inspire, infuriate or involve the public-at-large. Editors and producers at various news organizations could help them adapt their material for a wider audience.

Think what practical or important things we could learn by regularly hearing from epidemiologists, criminologists, sociologists, pop culture experts, management authorities, women’s studies scholars, even economists and business professors not in the pocket of corporate powers.

Walljasper argues for a dual publication system: the peer-reviewed journal system, which is critical for quality research, and a public sphere system, in which serious university research helps ameliorate the decline of serious journalism. There are difficulties to overcome. For one thing, it means double the work for professors already groaning under the weight of ungraded papers. There are no structural obstacles to scholarly work being adapted for public consumption. The key is valuing work published on the Internet.

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