Most cash-strapped families, especially on the Great Plains, wouldn’t have paid for medical information via the Net. Just why not trust the doctor? Why gamble the money on such a long shot?

Luckily for a sick child, some Great Plains folks did just that. Today’s Washington Post quotes a Stanford University librarian on what followed.

Soon they were back at the doctor’s office with a report of a new therapy. “They plunked it down and said, ‘Hey, can we try this?’ And guess what? It worked.”

Thus does the Post illustrate the potential benefits of a laudable project called The Public Library of Science–or at least the perils of overpricing crucial information.

…The vast majority of the 50,000 to 60,000 research articles published each year as a result of federally funded science ends up in the hands of for-profit publishers–the largest of them based overseas–that charge as much as $50 to view the results of a single study online. The child’s parents…paid for several papers before finding the one that led them to the cure.

Why is it, a growing number of people ask, that anyone can download medical nonsense from the Web for free, but citizens must pay to see the results of carefully conducted biomedical research that was financed by their taxes?

Good question. But it doesn’t go far enough. Unwittingly or not, the article illustrates the perils of letting myopic economists influence copyright policy and fixate on the efficiencies of information usage as opposed to the cost-benefit ratio for society at large. Isn’t it better for families with sick children to have easy access to authoritative medical information than for policymakers to fret about whether some curious readers will call up information they don’t need? Also, isn’t it interesting that the parents on the Great Plains were not among the researchers for whom the Public Library of Science was most of all intended? Easy and affordable access to information shouldn’t be just for the academic, government and corporate sets.

Other issues come to mind here. The Post alludes to “a $9 billion publishing juggernaut”–commercial scientific journals, one of which, in brain research, charges as much as $20,000 a year to subscribers. Just how efficient is that system, especially from the perspective of an actual researcher (as opposed to an economist) or, gasp, some real live humans in acute need of the information, such as the child’s parents? Think of all the missed connections, all the unflipped pages and unfollowed hyperlinks, because gouges get in the way of people needing the information. What’s more, consider that the $9 billion is a little speck in our $10 trillion economy and an even tinier one in the global economy. Think, too, about the tens of billions that U.S. consumers spend on books a year–a huge amount on the surface, but minuscule compared to the potential benefits of bringing the Carnegie model to the Net for contemporary books and out-of-copyright works alike.

No, not everything should be online for free; the last thing we need is tax-financed e-book spam. Still, one hopes that in the fight for free information for the academic and research communities, the American elite won’t forget about the needs of that family on the Great Plains–in areas beyond medicine and beyond scientific journals. TeleRead, anybody?

Meanwhile here’s a modest little proposal. Let’s pass a law saying that info-economists must spend one month a year with no information resources other than those they can buy on a modest budget or get from an underfunded library in a rural town or inner-city ghetto. Mightn’t they just want to alter their definitions of “efficiency”?

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