As books, paper magazines and newspapers have become increasing difficulty to obtain, our library too has had to adapt to this ‘new normal’, taking the necessary precautions to restrict the spread of the virus by only granting entry to a small number of people at specific time slots, all the while assuring effortless remote access to library resources and services for those of us who work from home.
Without current easy access to the physical library with its invaluable resources for study and work, we need to reassess our approach. In particular, as much valuable journalism and science is communicated in the popular online press, we should re-evaluate our approach to providing access (rather than relying on students and staff to afford extensive personal subscriptions). I propose that our university prioritises remote access via our more high-quality online journals, newspapers, magazines and other behind-the-paywall digital media sources. These include Quartz, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, El País, De Correspondent and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – not to mention Medium and other high-quality paywall blog conglomerates. Not only does the library catalogue need to be expanded to include more traditional journalism, but subscriptions to new media are also essential.
We also need better access to existing resources, such as The Economist. Instead of getting a convoluted awkward search, a text-only based version, we need to institute proxies that allow direct access to these magazines and others that are crucial to keeping our finger on the global pulse.
While EUR did briefly experiment with subscribing for a few months in 2020 to Pressreader, a service that grants access to a large array of online press, this was neither properly communicated to our campus community to unleash its full potential, nor was the decision to end it transparently made.
It goes without saying that to conduct high-quality academic study and work we require unrestricted access to high-quality sources, be they scientific, media articles or any other references. Digital media sources, such as the ones mentioned, publish unique, valuable and in-depth content that offer insights into intricate matters and provide information that we cannot practically hope to gain from our existing collection. We rely upon media and scientific articles inform us not only of what constitutes knowledge in the past, but the present. It would be of benefit for our academic endeavours to have less restrictive – if not unrestricted – remote access to these, and similar, high-quality sources.
A paywall is a barrier for non-transactional access, which, more often than not, directs us to sources offering all-round open access while shying away from magazines, journals and blogs with paid content. The prevalence of paywalls in journals and magazines, such as the Washington Post, runs the risk of creating a form of bias not only in academic writing and research, but also in the information search of the general community: access bias. Studies made by the Research Information Network show that open access articles in the journal Nature Communications have more views and citations compared to articles only available for subscribers. Perhaps it is possible to note a similar trend in the case of magazines and newspapers: publications offering open access to articles and content tend to be more frequently read and referred to by both researchers and the general public as opposed to news outlets with paywall-restricted access, thus generating a bias. And bias is not compatible with the highest calibre academic research and education we esteem at our university.
The broader issue at stake is the morality of paywalls overall. University of Bristol scholar Mike Taylor once stated ‘publishing science behind paywalls is immoral’. Universities – especially Dutch ones – have played a major role opening scientific articles, unlocking the paywalls with open access contracts with major scientific publishers. Perhaps the time has come to translate this public interest into publicly funding high-quality newspapers, magazines and blogs? The science communication channel The Conversation is precisely this model.
Until a similar initiative to Plan S – which advocates for open access to scientific articles funded by public grants – is put into action for these news outlets, most of our staff and students will be denied access to these crucial resources. The most constructive and greatest benefit for all of us is to take relevant steps that promote the library’s capability to offer reliable remote access to these media sources as part of our roles as both students and researchers at Erasmus University. Libraries as conduits for access to knowledge are the heart of universities. As knowledge has gone digital and exceeds the boundaries of academic journals, we need to make sure we continue providing open access to these resources.
Yogi Hale Hendlin is a University Council Member and Assistant Professor of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative at the Erasmus School of Philosophy.