Academic Funding, a Atlas-Sized Matter?

This is a republishing of an article I wrote for the Strange Bedfellows project.  The original url is here.

“Money is the root of all evil,” said James Taggart. “Money can’t buy happiness.  Love will conquer any barrier and any social distance.  That may be a bromide, boys, but that’s how I feel.” [1]

I have been reading Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, and it has really made me think about academia in relation to the Internet.  Publications of academic scholarship have historically been reserved for libraries, private collections, and academia itself.  Little of it makes its way into mainstream life.  Conversely, the Internet is the great equalizer.  It makes anything and everything known to anyone, anywhere.  An important facet of the Internet is that it is free: free to access, free to publish in, free to use however you see fit.  This is almost a complete reversal of the situation in academia where knowledge was limited by cost, space, and physical deterioration.  As more and more scholarship becomes available online, there has been a push for institutions like libraries to subscribe to services like online journals, periodicals, and article databases.  But there has also been a rising trend for making academic scholarship open source.  This kind of social contract is based upon the value of knowledge and the knowledge that it ought to be accessible by all people who are interested.  However, as funding in higher education becomes more and more scarce, is there a moral code governing whether or not one can earn money from academic scholarship?

Atlas Shrugged makes several arguments to the effect that a socialist state is one in which society completely crumbles (I have only read half the book at this point) but it has so far made that point clear.  The “bad guys” are the people that do not actually produce anything in the story; they merely take from others to enrich themselves based on the illusion of helping society by leveling the playing field.  However, this is an illusion that they created and are benefiting from.  Due to the balance being completely one-sided, the actual “producers” in society disappear and things continually get worse.  Is there such a case for academia?  Is there a point where making money off of scholarship is just as unacceptable as offering it up for free?

I recently spoke with Professor William Bowen at the University of Toronto who is the director of Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages & Renaissance.  Iter hosts many projects but one of its biggest is a database of over 1.1 million entries related to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  When I was talking with Professor Bowen about Iter, he mentioned that its entire operating budget was covered by the subscription fees paid for by university libraries.  I was quite surprised to find that this project has as good of a business plan as the quality of the scholarship.  What shocked me more was to see that Iter still offered several free academic resources on its site, unlike sites like JSTOR or EEBO (Early English Books Online).   My question is, “should academic projects, particularly those that are given grants, funding, etc., be expected to try and recover those costs, or at least cover an operating budget?”

I think that academic scholarship on the Internet is a very important subject right now because of the money issues that universities are facing right now.  When overall funding is low, is there a time for academia to financially support itself? Profiteering is not so much an issue here as much as maintaining a balanced checkbook where money out is matched by money in. (Such as with non-profits like Iter.)  Or is there never a time for money to be made off of scholarship?

“I work for nothing but my own profit – which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it.  I do not produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine, and they do not buy it for my benefit at the expense of theirs; I do not sacrifice my interest to them nor do they sacrifice theirs to me; we deals as equals by mutual consent to mutual advantage – and I am proud of every penny that I have earned in this manner.” [2]

[1] Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: New American Library, 1996. p. 364

[2] ibid. p. 444

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2 Comments

Filed under Academia

2 responses to “Academic Funding, a Atlas-Sized Matter?

  1. Thou ART

    This is a very interesting view to take – I have to say I’ve never looked at it that way before, or really thought through the relationship between academia and the internet.

    I’m very curious to read Rand’s book now.

  2. If universities became fully private, receiving no government funding, then questions of money-making/profiting from research become a matter for each university. Whether they profit directly from research or not, many universities will find it in their interests to have healthy, publicly accessible research programs in order to raise their profile and attract students.

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