Academic grifting

David EideOpinions Columnist 

Having gone through three and a half years of it, I think it’s fair to now say that I have a pretty decent grasp on academia and the various institutions and systems that support it.  Overall, I’d say I’m quite satisfied with how academia functions, at least from the admittedly limited perspective of a student. That is not to say that it is flawless, mind you, merely that in my short time experiencing it, I haven’t really been disappointed or disillusioned by many aspects of it. There is one exception, however. While I’ve been a student, I have come to detest what I have come to terms with as academic grifting. I’m aware that this is a somewhat nebulous term, but I’d generally define it as the various ways in which participation in academic activities is placed behind often quite high paywalls. To put it bluntly, I think that this academic grifting makes it nearly impossible to get laypeople involved in scholarship and can in many cases even limit actual professionals. I’m not the only person who has noticed this, and I think a movement is building to address the issue 

I’ll start off the more in-depth discussion with a topic that I expect many of us students will be quite familiar with; textbook prices. This is an issue perhaps most noticeable in STEM fields, where companies feel like they can get away with charging $200 every semester for a single book. As a matter of fact, textbook prices have been increasing at an absurd degree for decades at this point, far outstripping the standard inflation rate, with prices rising an astronomical 1,041% since 1977. Even when students fight back against this insanity by utilizing the used books market, companies still find a way to restore scarcity by releasing new editions every couple of years even when it’s not fully necessary. The switch to online textbooks has actually made things worse, as now you don’t even own a physical copy of the book but instead pay for limited access, meaning there is no possibility of a used market to lessen prices whatsoever.

A somewhat less immediately obvious example but one that is perhaps even more insidious and harmful is the academic grifting that is to be found among the countless academic publications which hide almost all of their articles behind a large paywall. I don’t hold any illusions, I’m aware that these journals need to make a profit somehow, but some examples I’ve found are inexcusable. I have seen social science articles from the 1970s still locked behind a paywall that is usually something like $60 for a single article. Usually, this problem is somewhat mitigated through schools, like Gustavus, subscribing to big databases of journals to provide students and faculty access to a wide variety of academic articles that may need to be utilized in their work. However, not every journal will be included in the package purchased by your institution and some scholars have found themselves in the odd position of not even being able to access articles that they contributed to due to their school not paying for them. Now imagine how much of an issue this is for people who are not a part of major institutions, and it should become clear why there is such a big communication problem between the academic community and the public at large.

Based on these examples, it should come as no surprise that a significant movement has begun to develop seeking to push back against academic grifting in the numerous forms it takes.  Many open-source resources have developed in recent years hoping to provide the same information contained in expensive textbooks without charge. Indeed, I’m aware of a couple of professors at Gustavus who have adopted an approach that minimizes the need for textbooks while still ensuring that students receive all the important information needed for a course. In regard to the issue of publications and their high paywalls, even stronger actions have been taken. For example, just recently the US federal government created a new rule requiring all research receiving federal funds to be publicly available, which I think is just a common sense regulation.  

The fact is that many of the companies selling these journal bundles function as monopolies and make extremely high profits off of work that is ultimately designed to benefit the public and advance our societal knowledge. We should be pushing the institutions funding research to ensure it is open access as well as providing support to several nascent open-access journals which have been established in recent years as scholars have become fed up with the practices of the academic publishing industry. My frustration with academic grifting has gotten to the point where I would say that simply pirating the material you cannot access is the most morally acceptable option on top of just being economically feasible. In my opinion, the fruits of academic studies and research should be available to the public rather than locked behind a paywall and I think as a community of scholars we need to start pushing harder to make this ideal a reality.

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