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Open access – have your cake and eat it

December 11, 2011

No Entry signThis week, science minister David Willetts revealed plans to make all publicly funded research available in open-access journals. The long-awaited announcement to freely disseminate scientific literature that we, the taxpayers, have funded was made in the BIS Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth report.

Until now, publishers have charged fees for access to journals even when public money funded the research in the first place. As taxpayers, we were effectively being asked to pay twice. That is set to change, however, with the launch of a publicly accessible archive that will allow anyone to see the work that they have helped to realise.

While the news is sure to rankle with some of the academic publishers, it will be welcomed by the scientific community at large. The exorbitant fees that institutions have to pay for access to some of the leading journals take a large bite out of the annual budget – Professor David Colquhuon noted this week at a debate on open scientific data that UCL splurges €1.25 million per year on e-access subscriptions to just one publisher, Elsevier.

So with capital spending slashed during the comprehensive spending review, the open publication initiative may go some way towards maintaining a burgeoning research environment.

So what was it that opened the science minister’s eyes to the injustice of the paywall? A petition from researchers and academics? Or perhaps the publishers themselves proposed the idea in a spontaneous act of altruism? It was, rather predictably, neither of these:

“Just writing my book, it was striking how you’d start researching a document and you’d soon hit a paywall and find that you had to subscribe when, sometimes, the work had come from Research Council projects.” – David Willetts

Economic parasitism

One might reasonably ask: why has it taken so long to come to this decision? In August this year, George Monbiot accused academic publishers of “economic parasitism” in his column in the Guardian. He describes the behaviour as “pure rentier capitalism”, in which public resources are monopolised by the “lairds of learning”.

The major issue has been the way it forces researchers to clamour to get their work into the most prestigious publications. Having your research in the best journals is the easiest way to win acclaim and recognition, as well as helping to secure those all-important future grants. Researchers have relied on the so-called “impact factor” of these publications as an indicator to potential investors that the work they are doing is of the highest quality.

In his annual anniversary address last week, president of the Royal Society Sir Paul Nurse insisted that funding should be directed towards those who have already carried out quality research, with the assumption that they will continue to do so. If researchers fail to get their work into the premier journals then it might mean curtains for their future projects.

Imran Khan, the director of CaSE, has welcomed the BIS report, but sees plenty of work ahead. Quoted in the Guardian, he said:  “We call on the government to build on this start by setting aside serious funding to kick-start the sector and turn it into a game changer for UK economic growth – for instance, by setting aside the proceeds from the forthcoming 4G mobile spectrum auction to be reinvested in science, engineering, and innovation.”

It seems that all too often the reward for the hard work and dedication of researchers has been to see those efforts disappear behind an insurmountable pay-wall. This announcement looks set to pull those walls down and provide access to the people who have helped make the research possible.


Image courtesy of Magnus_D

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2011 2:17 pm

    Just wonder where the line should be drawn between retaining a level of confidentiality in and providing open-access to fundamental research. In public-private collaborative research projects, will private companies want their research data open and available to the competition? I suppose when it gets to peer review its too far down the road for them to worry about it

    • December 12, 2011 2:43 pm

      The problem has been that academic publishers have been charging us to read material that we have funded and has then been peer-reviewed by the scientific community. This means they have been able to generate huge profits with little effort on their part and have turned knowledge into a price-restricted commodity.
      It’s not so much an issue with the people behind the research, be they collaborations or private projects, but rather a question over the behaviour of these publishers.
      Would you restrict access on collaborations? I think the open-access proposals are the best way of allowing people to see how their taxes are being used, even if there has also been private funding. With all these announcements on money being made available to scientific research, wouldn’t you want to see what is being done with it?

  2. Phil Brown permalink
    December 17, 2011 6:00 pm

    I’ve always wondered about the economics of academic publishing. Why is it that books and journals are so expensive when a large part of the activity is already funded elsewhere, often publicly? I include the authors, obviously but also the huge effort of peer-reviewers. In the days when we used to send in typewritten manuscripts I could imagine there was a bit more effort required, but we now use template files that must do a lot of the hard work. And, dodgy as they are, even the humble spell-checkers must have removed at least some of the need for sub-editing. Well, someone must have done an analysis of all this – is there a link available?

    I’m currently involved on the outer fringes of a large multi-authored graduate-level textbook. When I look at the huge amount of voluntary effort that’s gone into it, it’s amazing. The publisher on this occasion is going to allow a pdf of the book to be publicly-available on the website of the project that organised its production. I wonder how that will affect sales?

    • December 19, 2011 7:55 am

      I think the George Monbiot article is a good place to start – it gives an idea of some of the profit margins these academic publishers have been enjoying despite minimal effort on their part.
      I think there is a difference if we are comparing research to textbooks but only because my assumption would be that part of your salary would cover the expectation of publishing work for the book. Is it common for universities to expect staff to voluntarily contribute to academic works, and if it is, are they reimbursed in some other way? The practices of universities may require an entirely new investigation…


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