Just how useful is terrorism research? The problem of pay-per-view

Once a month or so I get an email entitled “Updates on Radicalisation Research” from something called ‘’ ( I assume it is from the UK because of the way ‘radicalisation’ is spelled – either that or Canadian although I doubt that).  This newsletter usually lists a dozen or so papers written in a number of disciplines that have something to say about radicalisation and terrorism.

I browse the titles and there are inevitably four or five I’d love to read.  As an old retired guy if there is one thing I have it’s lots of time to read!  But when I click on ‘get access’, here is what pops up:

Article purchase: 24 hours access for USD 42.50 or 30 days access for USD 274.

Yes, you read that correctly: US$274 to get a month’s worth of access to one paper. Did I mention that I am retired (and hence on a fixed income)?  Is it just me or is this effing insane??  Even if I had that kind of money and I was working on a topic related to that of the paper I’d wanna be 100% sure it was germane to my needs or else I’d be some mad!

I didn’t used to have this challenge.  When I had the privilege of working for CSIS I usually could read these articles since the excellent Open Source Centre at our HQ had a subscription to the most important journals in the terrorism field.  And even though the content of those articles was at best tangential to my needs as a strategic analyst working on operational material derived from actual counter terrorism investigations, and hence I had no real need to read them, I would nevertheless do so since every once in a while I would come across a tidbit that helped me frame what I was seeing in the intelligence and therefore how to understand some small aspect of the problem.

But I now have bad news for those of you who are in academe and who want to play a role in the government’s understanding of terrorism: hardly anyone is reading what you write (I assume other academics do but that strikes me as a closed society and I was somewhat of a rarity in the security intelligence analysts’ world anyway).  Everywhere I go I hear scholars say that they want to be policy relevant and even sometimes practitioner relevant.  I’d like that too – I really am on your side, trust me – but I fear that is not happening.  Part of the problem is how you craft your work (too academicky) and part is that so little of what you do has any primary data (although I am told by my friend Bart Schuurman of Leiden University in the Netherlands that the latter is slowly improving), but the main reason has to be both a lack of time, especially for counter terrorism practitioners (security intelligence and law enforcement agencies), and because of those damn paywalls!

If I were you I would be screaming for public access to your work.  Not only is most of what you do publicly funded anyway (if you work at a university I pay your salary through my taxes) but having a wider audience might mean that your analysis gets more attention.  Doesn’t that make sense to you?  An aside: if you want to see a great documentary on the negative impact of having a handful of publishers who are keepers of the keys to academic work, check out ‘Paywall: the Movie’.

We all know that terrorism research has exploded (an apt term) since 9/11.  There is much more to choose from and although some of it is crap a lot of it is worth paying attention to.  But those of us in the counter terrorism business, and even me as a former CT guy who comments on all matters terrorism these days, cannot reflect on what we cannot read!  That is a shame as there is work being done that warrants greater distribution.  Why hide your light under a lamp (or your paper behind a paywall)?

I have provided you with a hint on what you need to do.  Now go do it!


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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