Panorama of the Harvard University's campus in Cambridge, MA, USA showcasing its historic architecture, gardens and students passing by on June 2, 2014.

Panorama of the Harvard University's campus in Cambridge, MA, USA showcasing its historic architecture, gardens and students passing by on June 2, 2014. Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

Academic Paywalls Harm National Security

Embracing the open-access movement would help defense leaders make America safer and strengthen their ties with the tech industry.

Would you pay $42.50 for 24 hours of access to a dense, 20-page scholarly article? That is the current rate for access to many academic journals, including my own recent article assessing the threat of radical environmental chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear terrorism.

Of course, many do not purchase single articles, instead relying on access through university libraries. However, journal subscriptions are still so costly that even Harvard University, with its $37.1 billion endowment, has stopped subscribing.

If Harvard University cannot afford access, then it is certainly too pricy for defense consultants, businesses (especially small ones), and think tanks. A previous employer of mine, a consultancy that supports senior national security leaders, gave up its academic journal subscriptions in the wake of price hikes. Some military research centers simply make do with minimal access. The high cost of academic articles has even dissuaded defense companies, from time to time, from turning concepts into reality.

But perhaps you doubt that scholarly journals offer extensive benefits to national security. To illustrate these benefits, I will focus on three: informing policy, skill and capability building, and technological insight.

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Academic research can offer insights to improve policy decisions. The Nonproliferation Review recently published a study on the spread of Soviet gas-centrifuges finding that public domain information and natural technological change are more important enablers of nuclear proliferation than illicit nuclear networks. That could certainly inform counter-proliferation policies, perhaps placing more emphasis on information operations. Similarly, a study in the Journal of Economic Issues examined the effects of U.S. export controls on innovation and competitiveness and offered numerous suggestions for reform.

Academic research also offers insights into national security-relevant skills and capabilities. Research on forecasting has direct relevance to intelligence analysis and strategic planning. And organizational research has relevance to every national security bureaucracy, such as studies on how to make organizations more creative and adaptable.

Finally, research on advances in technology is of use to businesses offering new defense technology and analysts seeking to understand the national security impacts of emerging technologies. This is especially true for military-relevant innovations, where the private sector increasingly dominates. For example, a meta-analysis of human-system interfaces in managing aerial drone swarms illustrates the key challenges in controlling large drone swarms. The study has significant relevance to understanding the import of technological developments and creating larger swarms – a critical requirement for realizing the technology’s national security potential.

Moreover, foreign governments and companies enjoy better access to taxpayer-funded research than their American counterparts, owing to copyright restrictions imposed by U.S. courts. The website Sci-Hub is an example of an easy, but legally restricted route around academic paywalls. Users can input the URL of any academic article and Sci-Hub will either provide a copy from its repository or use academic credentials to retrieve it. Although U.S. courts ordered search engines and Internet services to ban access to Sci-Hub over copyright infringements, the site thrives internationally. Sci-Hub’s founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, reports that most downloads occur in China, Russia, Iran, Brazil, and India. (Interestingly, a survey by Science, one of the world’s leading academic journals, found that 88 percent of respondents do not see downloading pirated papers as morally wrong.)

Should defense leaders decide to address this problem, they will find themselves allied with technology companies who are fierce advocates of open access. From Wikipedia to YouTube and Google, many of the most significant technology companies owe their success to broad, free access to content. In 2002, Google launched “Project Ocean,” ambitiously seeking to digitize and freely provide every book in the world. Unfortunately for Google, authors and publishers sued, and the project ended.

The timing could hardly be better. Google caused quite a stir in the defense community when they announced their work on artificial intelligence would not be used to support the military. Similarly, Apple and other technology companies have resisted encryption backdoors for national security purposes. And military officers struggle to recruit cyber officers. Supporting open access is no panacea to these problems, but it offers an opportunity to build good will and support the values of these vital actors.

The national security community has at least three options to address this challenge: connect, enable, or legislate.

Connect: National security agencies can sponsor conference and workshops for academics, technology leaders, and university librarians to discuss the best ways to advance open access. When universities work together, they can share successful strategies and negotiate collectively. Professional military education institutions are also stakeholders, as journal access directly impacts their missions. Technology leaders may also have suggestions on developing new or expanding existing platforms, such as Google Scholar. They may also have insights to combatting the rise of parasitic open-source journals, while promoting rigorous, legitimate ones.

Enable: National security agencies can directly support open access. Agencies could provide funds to cover open access publishing fees for articles related to their mission or to critical national security issues. (Journals charge authors a flat fee of about $2,500 to make an article open access.) Deeper commitments could include funding for novel platforms to share national security-relevant academic research; a digital Library of Alexandria devoted to national security.

Legislate: The broadest, most effective option is to help persuade Congress to expand exemptions to relevant copyright laws to improve access to publicly funded research. Public interest exemptions to copyright law are not unusual. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for example, carves out an exemption for using copyrighted material in scholarship, research, and teaching. Of course, this would threaten the multi-billion-dollar academic publishing industry. But it is worth noting that the industry does not compensate the peer-reviewers and academic researchers who do all the substantive work. And a threat to remove academic publisher copyright protection would press publishers to reduce costs, no matter whether an actual law is adopted.

The fruits of scholarship should be available to all, and the national security community has a role to play in making it happen.