EDITORIAL: We must confront control of information
Oligopolistic academic industries constrain freedom to access knowledge
Access to information and knowledge is the liberating force that enlightens and fuels the democratic energies of society. As Thomas Jefferson said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." But for democracy to breathe, the current stranglehold on academic information must be dismantled.
The Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) has been working on an initiative to increase the amount of open textbooks in the classrooms. RUSA members have been pushing for a legislative bill that would require all public universities in New Jersey to submit a plan to the Secretary of Higher Education explaining how they would transition their most popular course offerings to providing open textbooks.
This reactionary initiative is in response to the irreprehensible reality that information is controlled by an oligopolistic market that functions as a cartel. The cost of college textbooks increased by 812 percent from 1978 to 2013. The textbook industry has been valued at $7 to $10 billion, with five textbook publishers controlling 80 percent of the market.
While there is a growing revolt over the access to college course material, we should be wary about where this revolution takes us. One alternative put forward is inclusive-access programs between textbook publishing companies and educational institutions. Pearson has accumulated inclusive-access agreements with approximately 400 colleges and universities, as 270 institutions have also signed to work with McGraw-Hill Education.
But this model does not shift the power structure in the market, which has allowed for the exploitation of students. In critique of this model, Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPRAC), said: “It’s exactly the same model where publishers are in control and students are a captive market, but the difference now is publishers have direct access to students’ wallets. What could go wrong with that?”
Shifts made under the guise of inclusive access divert down a path of costly access codes. Approximately “60 percent of students at community colleges and four-year institutions used an access code during the 2016-2017 academic year,” according to the National Association of College Stores.
“Traditional publishers are taking advantage of students because they must buy what materials are assigned, so the rules of supply and demand really don’t apply here,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, a higher-education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, according to The Washington Post.
Information exploitation does not start or end at the textbook industry. Access to information and knowledge is also the victim of an oligopolistic academic publishing market whose unbridled and relentless pursuit of profits has been at the expense of academic libraries, students, faculty, researchers and the general public. Controlling more than 50 percent of all papers published, the powerful stakeholders in the market include Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis and Sage Publications. Just as the textbook industry experienced, these top publishers have witnessed profit margins stretching above 30 percent.
Years of price increases, coercive “big deal bundling” and restrictive author agreements have served to galvanize scholars and academics who began to see open access as a means of progress and a response to technological advancements with the potential to liberate knowledge from the shackles of predatory capitalism.
Democratic values are threatened when control of access to information is held by a few corporate entities solely motivated by maximization of profits. “Open access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open Access ensures that anyone can access and use these results — to turn ideas into industries and breakthroughs into better lives,” according to the SPRAC.
A two-pronged effort must be made to confront the problems of marketized information. There must be an intervention that deconstructs the concentration of market power and instills democratic access in the academic publishing industry through which new information is meant to be divulged to the benefit of populace and to further academic progress. The liberation of new information must also be coupled with the opening of access to textbooks.
We must not continue our engagement in the bolstering of unsustainable, predatory business models that subdue academic freedom and exploit the students and future of this nation. We are held hostage by uncompetitive markets and the privatization of information. We must reclaim our values of intellectual freedom in a market place of ideas.
The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 151st editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.