Op-Ed: There’s more than STEM research

For those in higher education, research can feel like something they own. It becomes a calling card, central to one’s career. With the new trend of open access gaining ground, research accessibility can be a tricky issue in academic politics.

If research isn’t open access, one can request access from academics, but this isn’t dependable. This sort of access is piecemeal and asks a lot out of other academics. Even when work is published in large academic journals, it is still regulated and closed off from the general public. Arising out of this quagmire is a serious and ethically complicated question: Does the public deserve access to academic research?

On one hand, higher education and the academy exist to serve the greater community. On the other hand, researchers dedicate a lot of time and energy to work that rightly warrants value. So, who is more deserving? When it comes to federally funded research, the greater community is more deserving.

Or, so Congress seems to think.

Earlier this year, Congress oversaw the introduction of the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act. This bill, FASTR, would make federally funded research freely available online to the greater public. As Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the bill sponsor, explained, “The FASTR act provides that access because taxpayer-funded research should never be hidden behind a paywall.”

I certainly agree with Wyden. It seems only reasonable that research funded by taxpayer dollars should be available to the public.

Unfortunately, I don’t think FASTR goes far enough. The issue of open access is a prickly one for some researchers. FASTR fails to adequately include humanities and social science research.

The primary focus of the bill is on STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, as our country is obsessed with STEM at the moment.

The focus is not just in title, as the act focuses on agencies with large expenditures — more than $100 million — that overwhelmingly include STEM-related research institutions.

However, STEM fields aren’t the only fields that conduct federally funded research. It doesn’t matter what field a researcher is in. If research is conducted with federal funding, it would need to be open and free to the public within six months of publication.

But, open access is part of a larger problem within higher education. I suppose it has to do with how we want to see universities and higher learning institutions. To me, it seems reckless and disingenuous to not make available research to the greater community. This includes humanities and social science research.

State universities are expressly culpable, especially land-grant institutions. Land-grant universities were founded with the express goal of serving the community in which they exist. This includes land-grant employees as well. Research in any college should be available to the community in which it was conducted. Otherwise, what’s the point?

There are some who would resent this openness. For whatever reason, some feel that their work exists only in a selfish “mine” mentality. I understand this feeling well. We work and obsess over our work, so it is only natural for it to feel as if we are the only ones who could understand it. But this is simply an illusion.

Indeed, what Wyden signaled with the naming of FASTR is that humanities and social sciences research doesn’t matter in the same way as STEM research. Tragically, research done in the humanities and social sciences is nothing more than a sideline of musings. It’s infuriating but not unexpected.

As a researcher — one who often straddles both the humanities and STEM — I can’t think of one reason to not have my research published in open-access venues. Perhaps my idealism rules me, but it seems to me that it’s my duty to let the community that supports me know what I’m doing and why I think it’s important.

Therein lies the problem: Articulating the importance of one’s research can be tremendously difficult. Many will say they’re contributing to the body of knowledge. Okay, but what does that mean, exactly? I think there is value in all research, but I also think there is value in being able to articulate its importance.

I appreciate what FASTR will do, but it’s not enough. The U.S. government can’t mandate that all research be open access because they don’t fund all research. But do higher education and the academy really need someone to tell them to let the community in? Are higher education and the academy that self-interested?

Humanities and social science research has value. Among other things, it clues us into the suffering and beauty in the world. It encourages us to change what we can. However, the value of research is lost when it lives not in the public and with the community, but in closed-off academic journals that few will probably ever read.

If higher education and the academy truly valued research, it would be available not just to the privileged few but to all of humanity.

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