Academic research shouldn’t be made freely available to all

Stephen Caddick
138004991 270x300 Academic research shouldnt be made freely available to all

David Willetts, the science minister, has spoken: the Government, in this Olympic year, is ‘going for gold’ – enabling everyone to access university research free of charge. Responding to the Finch report, they have made it clear that they will do this regardless of cost. Yet to accept the recommendations at this stage is a mistake. They will undermine the UK’s world-class research competitiveness – one of our major assets – but with no benefit to the British economy, at a time when this should be a top priority.

At first glance many of the recommendations seem entirely reasonable – which is why it seems the Government has accepted them. Academic research is largely funded by the Government and charities, the argument goes, so why not insist that academic researchers should make it available to all, free of charge to the user. Intuitively, it makes sense.

Yet on closer examination, there are some grave flaws to the approach the Government has decided to follow, not least the cost.

This policy means that unlike others across the globe, UK authors will have to pay to publish, in order to make their articles freely available to everyone. This is in addition to conventional journal subscription fees which already cost us hundreds of millions to access articles. It’s like a journalist paying to write an article to make it freely available to all readers, and yet still needing to buy the paper. This approach, the so called ‘gold’ level open access, will be paid straight from fixed research budgets – with an additional cost of up to £50m – meaning less research.

Wealthy institutions and well-funded academic researchers will be able to absorb the costs but for those just starting out, it could present a real barrier to publishing in the most reputable journals.

For me, it’s the wider impact on the British economy which is most worrying. The Government argues that these proposals will give us a competitive economic advantage. They will not. The costs of research for the UK will increase, but without providing a preferential benefit to British businesses. This hardly seems like an effective way to make use of our world-class research to help rebuild our economy, nor helping to contribute to generating the millions of jobs necessary for the UK, any time soon.

Surely we should ask businesses what preferential access to our research they would value and how we can make the UK the best place in the world for corporations to come, collaborate and invest.

Let’s be clear: there are alternatives. We can reduce the cost by accepting the so-called green, rather than gold, open access, which would see academics free to publish their research papers online after they have been published in scientific journals. We can work with the learned societies and together create new ways to publish research. We only need to look at Wikipedia to see a good example of how to make information accessible in a cost effective manner.

In the meantime, there are measures we as individual academics can take to make or research more available and accessible. We can use the myriad social media tools already available to us: Twitter, Facebook, Audioboo and Youtube. We can create Wikipedia pages; ensure PhD theses are published online; create up-to-date personal web-pages, and provide publicly accessible summaries of research. These are easy, cost effective and searchable.

We are entering a brave new world of publishing – we only have to look around at what has happened to newspapers and fiction writing. Gold always shines brightly – and gold open access may be appropriate for international funders who can insist on a level playing field – but in this case green is a more attractive option. The government cannot afford to throw public money at commercial publishers at the expense of the science budget – if we do so then we risk doing more harm than good to our research community and to the British economy.

Professor Stephen Caddick is Vice-Provost for enterprise at UCL.

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  • Ian Kennedy

    Although I agree that it would be costly if take – up was high,I believe the opportunity should be given to all to learn for free or as a long term loan (regardless of credit history.)
    I believe a higher general standard of education could be achieved through this, hopefully raising the general standard of living by encouraging employers to pay above the NMW because of having more focused staff.
    I realise it is fraught with pitfalls,but educational reform has begun in this country and it is nice to see it continue; if only to inspire hope in the learner.

  • Alex

    “It’s too expensive to tell you”

    Sounds a bit like answer to the the FOI request for the recent NHS review documents.

    And similar to the oft used “we can’t tell you for security reasons” (if only we had known what the JIS were saying and who was “sexing it up” prior to the latest misadventure in Iraq)

    If we pay for it we get to see it. It’s that simple.

  • Ged Ridgway

    It’s completely different — it’s very easy to get to see a research article that interests you (e.g. at a library, or by buying the article from the publisher for around USD30, or by emailing the corresponding author, or in many cases by just downloading it from the author’s website) but do you want all published research to be automatically and freely available to you and everyone else world-wide (who didn’t pay for it) direct from the publisher, even if this means paying quite a lot of extra money to publishing companies who are currently making huge profits?

  • Alex

    If others have to see it so I (and others paying for the research) can see what we are paying for then that is a part of the price we pay. It is preferable to the alternative.

    If the issue is publishing costs then it is the publishing model that must change, not disclosure.

    In fact, as I understand it, the publishing model _is_ changing, presumably driven in part by this type of thing.

  • Newsbot9

    Right. Please don’t do hard science stories.

    The fact is, a few primarily American publishers are raking it off British academics.

  • Newsbot9

    That’s exactly what the government are doing, turning grants into loans for adult education (and I expect soon 16-18 education). Predictably, it means that people will not pay the massive sums involved (far more than they will ever gain) and training is going to plummet – a complete disaster since UK business is notoriously poor at training and staff investment.

  • Skadhi_the_Raverner

    I support open science, and I can tell you, a lot of academics do as well.

    Peer review does not depend on copyrighted journals demanding pay.

  • Kathryn Elaine Kerbs


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