> It would be easier to embrace academia if academic research, much of which is paid for with public funds, was published in open journals that all taxpayers could read for free, instead of in expensive private journals that only other academics can access for "free" via their university libraries.
In principle I agree with this point, in practice it is moot. Any member of the public can visit a local university or large public library and get access to any book or journal article they desire. No, they can't read the articles without leaving their office, but, yes, they can get all of the research articles and other scholarly publications for free. Libraries exist for a reason, they still provide the service they advertise. This is a false criticism of the flawed and broken publishing system.
> I think this essay's definition of anti-intellectualism is incoherent -- must I disrespect knowledge itself, disrespect all education beyond grade school, disrespect War and Peace, or merely disrespect Nicholas Carr, in order to be labeled an anti-intellectual? -- so it's hard to make a definitive response.
As in a discussion on religion it depends entirely on how you scope the word "intellectual." It could and does mean a variety of things. I believe the author of the original article was leaving it open to many meanings. This is not good writing. He should have said what he meant, instead of the feeling of what he meant.
> in a world where it didn't involve an enormous pay cut, enormous career risk, incredible devotion, high stress, difficult politics, and potentially the sacrifice of one's family life.
Those are all fair statements on the cost of pursuing a life in academic research. However, only the pay cut really differentiates academia from any other competitive field. People engage in academia because they love it not because they get rich.
> As economies grow around the world and the web gets built out, we add more and more people to our public discourse
Interesting factoid, the amount of academic publishing has pretty much only gone up in last century. So even discounting the Internet public discourse (and I do believe academic publications are public) has been growing.
Let's not get into estimating the actual percentage of humanity that lives within, say, thirty minutes of a publicly accessible library with a Nature subscription. (I do, but I pay big-city rent for a reason.) Instead, let's talk about modern information technology.
Have you ever visited tvtropes.org? Don't go if you don't have the rest of the day to waste. It is seriously addictive, mostly because it's a sterling example of hypertext in action, maybe even better than Wikipedia. Every article is linked to the others. Every citation has a link. You want to check a reference, you click. You want to surf a chain of references N generations back, you click N times. You can't not follow the links on tvtropes.org, unless you simply hate all pop culture.
It is the height of irony that HTTP was originally invented to link up academic publications, because when last I surfed academic journals, six years or so ago, it didn't work that way. You would click a journal article, maybe click through a couple of crappy login screens, maybe navigate up and down some menus on some journal's CMS, and finally find the article after a bunch of surfing. It would have footnotes. The footnotes were almost never links. Instead you had to manually type their key information into your local library's website in some other window, and then hope that your local library had the journal, then surf through some more screens and up and down some more delightful CMS cruft before you found the article.
Smart folks would download PDFs of everything as they went and then file them in some personal database like Endnote. But they still wouldn't be cross-linked. You had to spend time organizing them, or use the search a lot.
I assume that this workflow has improved at least a bit since then. Maybe Endnote or its competitor is smarter, maybe journals have finally started publishing hyperlinks. Maybe it has even improved to the point that academic literature is half as easy to surf as, say, tvtropes.org. In which case I take back much of what I said, and we can go back to estimating how many people can actually be expected to access the blessed terminal where all of this can happen. But I bet it hasn't improved that much. I bet it's still impossible to construct a hyperlink from Nature directly to Science, mostly because they've got different and incompatible DRM.
Mind you, things are heaven compared to when I was in grad school, when following references from a paper meant going into the stacks, laboriously collecting one heavy paper volume per footnote, physically hauling them back to a photocopier, and copying the articles two pages at a time. Oh, the hours I spent. Life is much better now. But, you know, young people don't know or care about how hard I had it. All they can see is that it's fifty times easier to research the plot of any episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion than it is to follow a chain of citations from a Nobel-winning publication back two generations, and that a popular article about a videogame from 1980 can link to its sources but a popular article about a publication from last Wednesday's Nature can only link to a paywall.
Science is always going to be a hard sell compared to the rest of our culture, so why do we make it even harder?
> Maybe it has even improved to the point that academic literature is half as easy to surf as, say, tvtropes.org.
It is. try google scholar, pub med, or academic.research.microsoft.com for starters and Mendeley for building a personal "library" (note Mendeley isn't perfect but it is a lot better than not using a paper manager.) Things aren't great but they are better.
> I bet it's still impossible to construct a hyperlink from Nature directly to Science, mostly because they've got different and incompatible DRM.
I have no idea I don't read Nature or Science. The Computer Science literature I read is all easily searchable these days.
> Mind you, things are heaven compared to when I was in grad school, when following references from a paper meant going into the stacks, laboriously collecting one heavy paper volume per footnote, physically hauling them back to a photocopier, and copying the articles two pages at a time.
I still do this (but for Religious Studies research in my spare time) and don't really mind it, although I try to avoid photocopying when possible as it is a pain.
> All they can see is that it's fifty times easier to research the plot of any episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion than it is to follow a chain of citations from a Nobel-winning publication back two generations, and that a popular article about a videogame from 1980 can link to its sources but a popular article about a publication from last Wednesday's Nature can only link to a paywall.
I am usually against the idea of progress, but in this instance I do believe this will not be the case forever. Already we are starting to see changes in the publishing industry. Search tools are improving, archiving tool are improving, library collection tools are improving. Yes it is slow, but the problems they are solving a much harder than the problem of generating new content. New content can be put the days leading format (papyrus, scrolls, codex, books, pamphlets/newspaper/magazine, websites/blogs/wikis) at zero extra cost. Old content however costs a lot to update. Libraries and academic journals have a lot of content that existed before the web, before the pdf, and before the wiki. It takes sometime of the format transition but if the past is any guide the old formats eventually become historical curiosities rather than knowledge repositories.
Oh, I'm not surprised to find the CS literature leading the way to our hyperlinked future. CS folks are the first to know the score when it comes to online publishing.
Unfortunately, I was never a CS guy, I was a cancer researcher. And if you can't read the Nature journals you're not going to keep up with medical or genetic research -- everyone in the field openly lusts after Nature publications; Nature gets first crack at every manuscript -- and Nature sits firmly behind a paywall.
Let's try your helpful suggestions on the legendary paper, Viable offspring derived from fetal and mammalian cells, a.k.a. "the Dolly-the-sheep paper", Nature 385, 810-813 (27 February 1997). Surely I can write a blog post in which I link directly to the methods section of this famous work, which contains the first-ever working recipe for cloning an entire mammal? I mean, this is from 1997. We even had the web in 1997. Don't try to tell me that this has to be painstakingly transcribed from some faded papyrus.
Pubmed has the abstract, of course -- they have abstracts for everything:
...so if I want to talk about the methods section, it looks like I'll have to tell my blog readers to click through to, e.g., the Nature Publishing Group and pay thirty-two dollars for the privilege :
The first link is to a reprint of most of the article, in a book. And they've managed to include every page. Today, anyway. For me, this time. (Other pages of the book are "not included" in the preview, so maybe others won't be so lucky?)
Oops, except the figures and tables aren't there. Sure hope there wasn't any data in those figures and tables.
So I'm saved, sort of, thanks to Google's big scanning budget and even bigger legal budget, provided I want to cite the words of Wilmut et al, and not their data. Or their slightly-more-obscure references, or any of their many citations -- for those, I will have to repeat this dance, and hope I still get lucky.
I know I've got a bit of an idee fixe here, but I cannot get over how utterly lame this is. My god, it is lame. Much of the best work of modern civilization, the pinnacle of hundreds of years of scientific advance, work which our society invests billions of dollars in, is hidden inside this pitifully obsolete rent-seeking system while we use state-of-the-art infotech to exchange pop-music lyrics and annotate famous games of Magic: The Gathering.
 No, that is not thirty-two dollars per year, or even per month. That's one paper. You're probably better off springing for a subscription ($199) although that only gets you Nature: all the other journals in the Nature family, like Nature Medicine, are extra, and of course every other journal is also extra.
And even in CS you are mostly out of luck if it has been published by any of the usual anti-progress rackets like the ACM or IEEE or the other usual suspects (Springer , Elsevier and their ilk). Sometimes authors are allowed to publish a copy on their homepages, and sometimes they even do, but you still have to find it. Just yesterday I tried to find a description and current assesment of an algorithm from the late 60ies (arc labeling for shortest paths with turn penalties), and most references I found were north of $35 for twelve pages.
I completely agree about Springer and Elsevier, but the ACM and IEEE both offer "Digital Library" subscriptions that give you complete access to the entire archives of all of their publications for a couple of hundred bucks a year (including their membership fee.) That's a small price to pay for the quantity and quality of material available, at least in my opinion-- and I'd be ecstatic if Elsevier or Springer offered a similar option. (I've probably paid more than that to Springer this year alone just to get a half-dozen individual articles.)
There has been some improvement: namely, if you copy and paste an article's title from the bibliography into Google Scholar, you can usually get to a PDF without clicking through much CMS cruft. That's about it, though.
Assuming your sitting in front of a terminal that has the subscription. I'm still loathing my university's vpn solution for being soooo dog-slow, but it was the only way to read intersting papers from home or gather all the references for a bit of research. Now that I'm out of my studies I'm totally deprived of that pleasure. Yeah, you could go to the library. Hell will freeze over when I do that just to scroll over an interesting paper on a slow day.
And the most infuriating thing: I'm already paying for most of the public research with my taxes.
Any member of the public can visit a local university or large public library and get access to any book or journal article they desire.
I think it's a bit sad that I have to drive all the way from Buenos Aires to Texas if I want to read a journal from an university in the US, even if it wasn't my tax money that paid for it. Specially considering how positive and easy it would be to make this knowledge publicly available.
There's often creative ways around this. For one, emailing the authors of an article and asking for a copy, checking arxiv, emailing a journal and asking for a copy (yes, sometimes they will give you a copy for free) and a bunch of other things.
When I was doing more research I did this occasionally and it worked out good, especially for newer papers.
At Cornell anybody can walk into the library and find books in the stacks. Go to Harvard or Yale and you'll find armed guards in their way.
Cornell's libraries are gradually disappearing; they quit buying CS conference proceedings in 2008 and 95% of the books in physical sciences and engineering will be going into long term storage where you can only get them with a library card.
Recent literature will only be available by using a computer connected to the internal internet of the school, and there may be a time when all of those computers are behind a locked door and need a password.
As for "people engage in academia because they love it" I've seen at elite schools that 80%+ of the researchers are people whose parents were also researchers who started drilling into them with a young age that their life would be complete failures if they did anything else. Often they'd run so ragged publishing and perishing that it's hard to believe that they enjoy anything at all.
> Any member of the public can visit a local university or large public library and get access to any book or journal article they desire.
This has not been entirely my experience. Unfortunately, I only have a half-remembered anecdote rather than data, but what I've found is that journals in some university libraries are becoming less accessible in paper form. Instead, one is directed to a JSTOR subscription or such. Of course, in order to access the electronic version, one must authenticate to the network with a university ID. This erodes the effect you describe.
Can anyone else confirm or refute this trend? Am I merely imagining it?